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Third Front’s a crowd

india Updated: Aug 26, 2009 21:07 IST
Vir Sanghvi

So, how well did you sleep when you read that Behenji wanted to be our next Prime Minister? How did you feel when you saw the BSP spokesman declare that his party had a single-point agenda: to make Mayawati Prime Minister? And did your hair stand on end when the leaders of the BSP informed the Third Front that their party would only agree to sign up on the condition that Behenji was officially declared as the Front’s prime ministerial candidate?

Did you have visions of all the wonderful things she would do once she was sworn in to the top job? Would she try and build a shopping centre around the Taj Mahal again? Or would she just sell the Taj this time around? How would she cope with the demands of foreign policy? Would she be especially gifted at reviving the fortunes of the Indian economy, given that she has proved to have such a talent for increasing her own fortune?

Well might you snigger. But frankly, a shiver passes through my body when I contemplate the prospect of the Third Front coming to power. The worst-case scenario, of course, is one where Behenji moves into Race Course Road and invites her followers to keep those donations coming so that the hundreds of crores she has already cheerfully declared as her income can swell to thousands of crores.

But Mayawati is merely a symptom; she is not the problem. She represents a certain political venality based on nothing more than an ability to leverage caste-based voting. Her lack of scruple, the blatant and shameless display of ambition and the naked greed are all present — in varying degrees — in many of India’s politicians.

We’ve seen this happen before. From1991 to 1996, the Indian economy was opened up and the creative energies of the Indian people were unleashed. In the next two or three years, successor governments should have built on Manmohan Singh’s reforms and taken India to the kind of global prominence that it finally reached a couple of years ago. But none of that happened largely because these governments were tenuous, fractious coalitions between regional leaders who were unable to provide any kind of stable governance.

When H.D. Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav were plotting to bring him down. When Deve Gowda did resign and I.K. Gujral became the compromise candidate, he suffered the mortification of being openly insulted by Sharad Yadav and ignored by many of his Cabinet colleagues.

Forget about leading India to world glory, these guys couldn’t even conduct a Cabinet meeting without throwing paperweights at each other. Hell, they probably couldn’t have organised a booze party in a brewery if they had tried.

Now, local satraps and caste leaders sense that they might be able to seize power again. If Mayawati can’t become Prime Minister, then perhaps Jayalalithaa can get the job. Or what about H.D. Deve Gowda again? He is tanned, he is rested, and he’s ready. And if that seems a little too terrifying a thought, then what about Chandrababu Naidu? He could once again become the candidate of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

It is no secret that I harbour grave misgivings about the BJP and the next generation of its leadership. But I have to say that I would rather take L.K. Advani and five years of BJP rule over this motley collection of power-hungry regional leaders.

There are many things wrong with the Third Front but here’s the one that worries me the most: these people have no unifying ideology, they have no vision of India, and in many cases, they don’t even have a sense of India outside of their own states. How in God’s name, are they going to steer the country out of this economic crisis? How will they give future generations the direction they deserve?

I know it is fashionable for the press to predict that a Third Front government is now a distinct possibility. After all, the BJP is in a mess and the Congress faces anti-incumbency.

To some extent, the hyping of the Third Front by the media has led Mayawati to make these claims for herself and it has given all regional leaders a sense that Delhi is within their grasp.

But the good news is that the press may well be overstating the Third Front’s prospects. Third Front governments are usually anchored by the Left, even if the communists do not necessarily accept office themselves. But the Left faces a sharp drop in its parliamentary numbers in the next Lok Sabha. With a Trinamool and Congress alliance set to go ahead, the Left will lose between 10 to 15 seats in West Bengal. It will probably do much worse in Kerala. So, the Left could be down by 20 to 25 seats the next time around.

When you consider the weakened position of the Left, then the Third Front seems less formidable. Even if Mulayam Singh takes the suicidal decision not to align with the Congress and allows Mayawati to win UP, how many seats can the BSP get? At best, 50.

If you add up all the other likely components of the Third Front (the TDP, Deve Gowda’s party, Bhajan Lal and even Naveen Patnaik), the grouping is a long, long way from getting anywhere near the magic 272 figure.

The only way a Third Front government could come to power is if either the Congress or the BJP support it. V.P. Singh made it to the top job because the BJP supported him. When the BJP pulled out, his government collapsed. Deve Gowda and Gujral took office because the Congress supported their government. When the Congress withdrew support, their governments fell.

One way to end all this talk of a Third Front and to give Mayawati a reality check would be for the Congress and the BJP to announce that they will not support a Third Front government. The BJP should say that Third Front constituents are welcome to join the NDA but that the BJP will head any government it participates in or even supports. Similarly, the Congress should declare that it will head a secular government at the Centre. Other parties are welcome to join as allies.

Once both parties make this clear, then the enthusiasm for the Third Front will fade. The Left will have less success in tempting regional leaders with dreams of national glory. The Third Front’s constituents will realise that the project is doomed and will drift to national parties.

And as for you and me, we can sleep well at nights again. We may not get the government we really desire. But at least we won’t have to worry about Behenji selling the Taj Mahal or about India throwing its future away as a bunch of regional politicians sit and squabble in South Block.

The truth is we need a two-party system. It’s either the Congress or the BJP. There is no third option.

And there should be no Third Front.