For all of the last month or so, people have been stopping journalists in the streets and asking the same questions: will there be an election? And when exactly will this mid-term poll be called?
The honest answer to that question (but one which a surprisingly small number of journalists is willing to give) is: I don't know. Nobody knows how long this government will survive: will the Prime Minister's statements provoke the Left again? Will the people who actually have to fight elections ask Prakash Karat and his friends to take it easy? Does the Left have a larger game plan?
Only if you can answer these questions — which none of us can — can you say with any degree of certainty whether there will be an election or when it is likely to be held.
But what intrigues me is how people react once they've got the will-there-be-an-election question out of way. Most ask if the government will be re-elected. (Possible but the rules of anti-incumbency suggest otherwise.) They ask if LK Advani will be the BJP's choice for Prime Minister. (Yes, I think.) And then they say: "Whatever happens, I hope these bloody Third Front guys don't come to power."
Most of us will have observed the growing disdain of the educated middle class for the Third Front. Even lifelong BJP voters who would froth at the mouth about a party led by an Italian-born person, will now tell you that they would be happier to see Manmohan Singh back in office than to see some Third Front-type stride into Race Course Road. (Ideally, of course, they would prefer AB Vajpayee or LK Advani.)
Likewise, hardcore secularists who have never forgiven Advani for his Rath Yatra and will never forget the massacres in Gujarat, will tell you that, on balance, they would rather see the BJP in office than support some coalition of regional leaders kept in office by a bunch of China-lovers (or Chinese stooges, depending on your perspective).
How did the Third Front get a bad name? Why is there so much panic at the thought of such moral and intellectual giants as Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh guiding the future of our nation?
It wasn't always like this. Way back in the Seventies, when Jaiprakash Narain rallied the people of India against the growing corruption of the Congress regime, the Jan Sangh was a junior partner and even then, JP had to fight with his colleagues to allow the RSS into his movement. At that stage, we believed that the only real alternative to the Congress comprised the forces that became the Janata Party, what we call the Third Front today.
The Janata Party consisted of former Congressmen (but Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and RK Hegde rather than today's version which consists of people like Amar Singh), socialists (men like George Fernandes), kulaks (Charan Singh's crowd) and the sort of local notables who would have backed the old-style Congress but had been either put off or booted out by Indira Gandhi.
The first version of the Janata Party was a disaster and the government squandered its mandate. But in the late 1980s, as Rajiv Gandhi's popularity dipped, it was a version of Janata (now joined by newer ex-Congressmen: VP Singh, Arun Nehru etc) that was treated as the alternative. Of course, the government that came out of this phase also fell but not before it had unleashed the forces of casteism and transformed cow-belt politics forever.
The Third Front re-emerged in 1996 when Narasimha Rao's corrupt Congress government crashed to defeat. Then, it was the Congress that propped up a Third Front government to keep the BJP from taking office. Of course, this government fell after a couple of years as well.
One reason why people are fed up of the Third Front lies in its history. It has had three shots at governance and, each time, it has blown it. Nobody really believes that a fourth Third Front government will last.
But there are other reasons too. By the mid-1990s, it was fashionable to say that national politics was dead and that the future would consist of coalitions of regional parties.
The decade that followed has proved this view wrong. It is true that neither the BJP nor the Congress seems capable of winning a parliamentary majority and relies on regional parties to make up the numbers. But both the NDA and the UPA have been coalitions where major decisions have been taken by the two lead parties on the basis of their understanding of national interest. In that sense, far from fading away, national politics has made a comeback.
The perception is growing — at least among the educated middle class — that at this stage in India's history, only a national party can guide our country's government.
Regional parties simply have no stake in the national future. They do not care about India as a whole. And they seek only to appease their regional (frequently, caste-based) constituencies.
Certainly, the events of the last decade have done nothing to dispel this view. The NDA only found its feet once it got rid of the AIADMK. Till then, Jayalalithaa blackmailed the Prime Minister on a weekly basis and her primary agenda consisted of the disposal of the cases that were pending against her.
In the life of this government too, regional parties have shown themselves to be as parochial. There is absolutely no justification, for instance, for M Karunanidhi to go on making needlessly insulting remarks about Ram to justify the construction of a bridge. No doubt such statements go down well with the atheistic anti-Brahminical core constituency of the Dravidian movement but they cause unnecessary offence to millions of Hindus outside Tamil Nadu.
As for the UP parties, need anything be said? Can anybody forget the crony-capitalism of the Mulayam Singh government which acted as though it could get away with anything — even dismissive remarks about the Nithari slaughters — because it had the Yadav vote all sewn up? It even refused to sack a minister who announced a bounty on the head of a Danish cartoonist because its electoral strategy consisted of appeasing Muslim extremists.
It is easy now to say that Mayawati is far better because she demolished Mulayam's cynical confidence in the stupidity of the electorate. But frankly, I'm not sure there's much difference. The BSP's pandering to its caste base is just as blatant. The administration is misused for political ends in exactly the same way. It is hard for any government to match the corruption of Mayawati's predecessors but first reports indicate that her regime is certainly attempting to reach that record. And let's not forget that the last time she was in office, they were going to build a mall next to the Taj Mahal.
It is for such reasons that the educated middle class has lost all faith in the idea of a Third Front alternative. We have rejected the superficially plausible notion — so popular in the 1990s — that India is itself a coalition and that therefore a coalition of regional parties perfectly mirrors our federal polity.
Equally, we have lost faith in the Left (essential for the existence of any Third Front government) partly because we were disillusioned by the wheeling and dealing of Harkishen Singh Surjeet as he encouraged the venal politics of Mulayam Singh and because we are now frightened off by the stubborn arrogance of a Prakash Karat, a man who believes he is never wrong. Even those of us who do not believe that the Left puts China first and India second no longer trust the CPM to represent our national interest.
So, for better or worse, two kinds of politics have emerged. At the state level, religion and ethnicity still call the shots. But at a national level, educated Indians sense that politics is too important a matter to be left to Jayalalithaa and Mayawati; that India's future is too precious to be bought and sold by Amar Singh.
The educated middle class is not India. But experience has shown us that what the middle class thinks today is usually reflected in the national politics of tomorrow.
And if that means that we are heading for a two-party system that has less and less room for the priorities of casteists, regionalists and Chinese groupies then I, for one, will stand up and cheer.