Remember the classic Sholay dialogue, “In the night when a child is crying, the mother says, go to sleep or Gabbar Singh will come.” A similar warning is echoing among India’s elite: only this time it isn’t some gun-toting dacoit who is spreading fear, but the prospect of a Third Front government that has India Inc and their political patrons scurrying for cover. The BJP calls it a ‘parking lot’, the Congress a recipe for anarchy; but is a Third Front government such a frightening idea?
Much of the anxiety stems from the ghost of Deve Gowda returning to haunt the political system. Deve Gowda’s rise to prime ministership in 1996 was accompanied by a mix of condescension and contempt. Until he occupied 7 Race Course Road, few outside Karnataka had heard of the humble farmer from Hardanhalli. He didn’t know Hindi, had no previous experience at the Centre and, yes, had a penchant for dozing off in public. Most forget that the rustic Gowda had the urbane P Chidambaram as finance minister. What we do remember is a time when it seemed that the office of the PM had been taken over by a political interloper, whom a large part of the country simply could not identify with.
Deve Gowda gave way to IK Gujral, another PM to be plucked out of anonymity. At least Gowda was nurtured in the cut and thrust of Karnataka politics; Gujral had been a semi-retired seminarist till he was chosen as a ‘consensus’ candidate by the then (dis)United Front. Like Gowda, Gujral’s government too could not last a year, convincing the sceptics that the idea of a Third Front government was synonymous with instability and chaos. Even the former PM, and original Third Front messiah, the late VP Singh was forced to admit, “A Third Front is feasible, but I am not sure it is desirable.”
Take the feasibility quotient first. A Third Front government would require not just the Congress and the BJP combined to end up with less than 272 seats (a possibility that cannot be ruled out), but would also need the non-BJP, non-Congress parties to come together on a joint platform. In 1996, these groups were able to find a common glue in anti-Congressism backed by anti-BJPism. Thirteen years later, this common thread has weakened considerably. When the avowedly ‘secular’ DMK becomes a key ally of a Vajpayee government, when the Lohiaites of the Samajwadi Party prop up a Congress-led government, the ideological divides begin to blur.
Mulayam-Lalu-Paswan embracing each other may signal a temporary realignment of old allies struggling to survive, but their made-for-television smiles cannot conceal their conflicting ambitions. Paswan may tie up with Lalu in Bihar, but there is little chance that he will support his fellow Bihari at the Centre. Ditto the case with the two Yadavs. Which is why, interestingly, each of them still swears by Manmohan Singh as their prime ministerial nominee even while contesting the Congress in the states.
Mayawati might be more open about her national ambitions than the others, but she can hardly expect to become a magnet around whom the other regional satraps will revolve. With around 40 MPs, the best she can aspire for is a role as a kingmaker who could provide support to one of the two main pre-poll alliances. The other power woman in this election, Jayalalithaa, is similarly constrained: the empress of Poes Garden is unlikely to become a pivot for a dramatic new political alignment.
The only grouping which remains committed to the idea of a Third Front is the Left. For the Left, the Third Front is its natural habitat: it provides legitimacy to their claim to be equidistant from the Congress and the BJP. And yet, it’s obvious that this policy of equidistance cannot dilute the Left’s primary goal of keeping the Sangh parivar out of the power matrix. While individual Left leaders may have a problem with Manmohan Singh, as a collective the Left is acutely aware that it cannot afford to create a situation that allows the BJP a shot at power. Which is why their so-called leadership of the Third Front is little more than a stop-gap arrangement, designed to increase their own post-poll political leverage.
But if a Third Front is unlikely to take off, why the animosity to its very existence? Partly, it has to do with the fact that the Indian elite still can’t come to terms with ‘outsiders’ like Mayawati or Amar Singh seeking space at the political high table. It’s also because a majority of the regional bosses have, sadly, failed to observe the ethical standards expected of those aspiring to the country’s highest office. A regional coalition is now equated with cash-and-carry politics, where each party offers itself to the highest bidder, where transfers and postings become key areas of decision-making, and governance becomes a casualty in the desperate desire for self-aggrandisement.
And yet, the rise of these leaders is directly co-related to the failure of the two big ‘national’ parties to adapt, either ideologically or organisationally, to the aspirations of a more federal and diverse polity. The Congress is still struggling to adjust to its status as Lalu Yadav’s ‘C’ team in Bihar even while doing precious little on the ground to revive itself. The BJP, as the Varun Gandhi episode has revealed, is still unwilling to shed its historical baggage. If the two national parties cannot create the basis for their social and political expansion, then why shouldn’t the smaller parties seek their own pound of flesh in any coalition arrangement?
It should be no surprise then that both the UPA and the NDA are going into elections 2009 in a shrunken state. Both, in a sense, are artificial coalitions, driven by political opportunism, and not through any common minimum programme as is claimed. Both reflect the complete dependence of the national parties on regional forces. Both mirror the declining role of the principal poles of Indian politics. Maybe, a non-Congress, non-BJP government will frighten away the investors a la Gabbar. But ironically, it may just be the final wake-up call the two main parties need to get their act together before its too late.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network