In election season, news headlines can be both dynamic and deceptive. A week ago, the Third Front seemed to have been ‘strengthened’ and ‘firmed up’. As the week ended, with Naveen Patnaik expressing ambivalence and Mayawati plainly snubbing it, the Third Front was said to have ‘collapsed’.
Both these assessments were exaggerated. The Third Front is an idea that will fructify or vanish in a post-election situation. If the mandate is suitably fractured, a Third Front will be negotiated and dozens of potential prime ministers will start competing in an alternative Indian Premier League.
In 1996, when the Third Front previously came to office, the United Front was put in shape as a post-election contrivance. It was not — and no Third Front can be — a pre-sold commodity. It is useful to remember even the UPA — which in its worst moments resembled a sort of Congress-led Third Front — was a post-election invention.
The Third Front is easy enough to describe: any coalition that is not led by the Congress or the BJP. However, there is no Third Front template. In the context of 2009, even cited precedents may turn out to be irrelevant.
Yet, it would be equally futile to be completely dismissive of the Third Front. Its adherents place their wisdom in compelling electoral arithmetic.
The coalition era truly arrived in India in 1996. The previous non-Congress mandates had not been genuinely fractured or coalitional. In 1977, people voted decisively against Indira Gandhi. In 1989, V.P. Singh ran an all-India campaign on the Bofors theme. It was only in 1996 that India voted in a disaggregated manner — states, regions and sub-regions going their own way. This must, therefore, be the starting point for all Third Front optimism.
In 1996, the two national parties won 301 seats in a House of 543 (BJP 161; Congress 140). In 1998, the figure went up to 323 (BJP 182; Congress 141). In 1999, it declined sharply to 296 (BJP 182; Congress 114). In 2004, it plummeted to 283 (Congress 145; BJP 138).
Third Front ideologues see this trend as irreversible. They argue, perhaps hope, that in 2009 the combined strength of the Congress and the BJP could slip to below 250 seats. This could mean the national parties would have to cede leadership and the prime ministry to somebody from a third party.
What if this situation — a nightmare for anyone with a stake in reasonably stable governance — actually occurs? Who would be the prime minister? While everybody from Sharad Pawar to Mayawati may be a claimant, the fact is the Third Front usually looks for not just a Common Minimum Programme but also a Common Minimum Prime Minister.
High-profile early starters often don’t make it. Caste and regional rivalries cancel out each other — in 1996, Laloo Yadav didn’t want Mulayam Singh Yadav; in 2009, Mulayam could sabotage Mayawati if he wins enough seats to do so. In 1996, a hangdog southerner, and then a south Delhi Punjabi with zero mass base were seen as acceptable to the powerful northern chieftains.
H.D. Deve Gowda probably thinks he still has a chance. If a Third Front government wants to humiliate the Congress, it could ask it to help bring back the prime minister the party withdrew support from in 1997.
N. Chandrababu Naidu has half on eye on 7 Race Course Road too. That is why he is subtly projecting his brother-in-law Balakrishna — N.T. Rama Rao’s son — as a parallel leader and possible chief minister in Andhra Pradesh. In case Naidu moves to the Centre, Balakrishna could be the Telugu Desam’s local hero. He is a Kamma community movie icon, though admittedly much smaller in appeal to Chiranjeevi, the Kapu community movie icon who has floated a party of his own.
Impossible at the best of times, Third Front projections are still more difficult this year. In the past decade, Indian states have gradually but unerringly moved towards bipolarity — BJP versus Congress in Gujarat; BSP versus SP in Uttar Pradesh; BJP-Shiv Sena versus Congress-NCP in Maharashtra and so on. The space for third forces has diminished.
This year it threatens to expand again. Take Haryana. B.S. Hooda’s Congress and Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD are contestants for the Jat vote. As his name implies, Kuldeep Bishnoi, the Congress rebel, is not a Jat. He thinks he can exploit anti-Jat sentiment and win some seats. In Andhra Pradesh, Chiranjeevi aspires to draw away Kapus from the TDP, a section of Dalits from the Congress and youth from both parties.
If three-way splits occur in the states, they will be reflected in New Delhi. This will further complicate Third Front formulations.
Finally, don’t bet on the Left providing the anchor. In 1996, the Third Front practitioners — Mulayam, Laloo, Naidu, Deve Gowda, the rest — were novices in the power game in Lutyens’ Delhi. They depended on veterans such as Harkishen Surjeet to put together structures, to bargain with the Congress.
Today, Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury don’t command the same authority. Every regional chieftain wants to cut deals individually with the national parties. He doesn’t want a proxy. That then is the credo of the All-New, Same-Old Third Front: every man for himself. Enjoy the summer.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.