Like Banquo’s ghost, the phantom of the Third Front seems to have appeared again. This time, it has sauntered on to the stage as a sub-text to the joint protest by a gamut of chief ministers against the central government’s alleged plan to implement the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) without consulting the state governments. While the issue of the NCTC itself has now jumped on to a fresh set of rails — with the prime minister assuring that the anti-terrorism mechanism will not be set up without consulting the states — the fact that non-Congress, non-BJP political parties have stepped on to a common platform has got quite a few pundits talking about yet another Third Front formation being set in the oven.
Especially with UPA ally the Trinamool Congress publicly venting its outrage against what it perceives to be the Centre’s trampling of the nation’s federalist structure, it is tempting — as well as comforting — to think that a non-Congress, non-BJP-led ‘third force’ is saddling its horse. Facts, however, make this apocryphal entity very unlikely.
For starters, this is not 1996 where the two national parties were innocents (and clueless) when it came to coalition politics at the Centre. So when Orissa chief minister and Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik claimed last week that “there is a need for a front against thoroughly discredited and scam-ridden UPA government at the Centre and the communally tainted NDA”, we have a stirring idea whose time has not come. Those rallying round Mr Patnaik — the NCTC issue being the totem pole of choice — include Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and former Karnataka chief minister (and one-time convenor of the United Front) N Chandrababu Naidu. The Left parties have also aired their customary support. It will be difficult enough to have the Trinamool and the Left on the same plank. But also, the ‘neither the Congress nor the BJP’ plank alone won’t serve as glue for this cobbled coalition.
The timing, of course, is perfect for desire to be moulded into reality. With the UP election results round the corner, there can be extra space reserved on the boat for either the BSP or the SP. But with the Congress and the BJP — despite the customary bravado of ‘going it alone whatever happens’ in UP — open to alliances in the Centre, the spirit of any Third Front may be willing, but the flesh is considerably weak.
What we are seeing in the demands and wishes for a Third Front is really the voice of regional political parties that have grown stronger. But to confuse this with chief ministers hoping to be the successors of Messrs Gujral, Deve Gowda and Naidu would be exaggerating things. One would even argue that a ‘third way’ formation would be welcome in the current political scenario where the central government is weak, and the central opposition is weaker. But wishes are not horses. At best, the Third Front is still what the CPI(M)’s Prakash Karat can fantasise about freely.