Will the Congress support a Third Front government at the Centre? Well, it rather depends on who you ask. For the last fortnight, such Congress leaders as Prithviraj Chavan and Salman Khurshid have been suggesting that this is a distinct possibility.
Leaders of a potential Third Front have suggested that as the BJP, in all likelihood, will not get an overall majority, a non-BJP government at the Centre may well be formed. As no such government could survive without the Congress support it is clear that all of them — from Akhilesh Yadav to Prakash Karat to Mamata Banerjee to J Jayalalithaa — are assuming that Congress support is a certainty.
And certainly, there are historical precedents. In 1996-7, the Congress backed the governments of, first, HD Deve Gowda and then Inder Kumar Gujral, on the grounds that all secular forces had to unite to keep the BJP from taking office.
And even before that, the Congress had supported the Chandra Shekhar government from outside in 1990 because it believed that with the Ayodhya agitation at its height, secular parties had to stop the BJP.
Then, last weekend, Rahul Gandhi spoke up, contradicting his party men. The Congress would not support a Third Front government, he said. And that should have been that. Except that Rahul then kicked the ball into the field of fantasy by adding that the reason why the Congress would not support a Third Front alternative was because it would not need to. The Congress, he insisted, would get the numbers to form a government by itself.
So, what is the truth? Does the Congress intend to prop up a Third Front regime? Which of the many Congress voices should we listen to?
I am not sure that anyone has the answers to those questions. But here’s what is clear: The Congress would be crazy and utterly deluded if it helped cobble together a coalition of convenience only to keep Narendra Modi out. And if it did so in the name of secularism, it would damage not only its own future but Indian secularism itself.
First of all, nobody is even sure if a Third Front alternative is numerically possible. Opinion polls suggest (though many journalists and politicians disagree) that the BJP campaign has gathered so much momentum that the NDA may be only 40 to 50 seats short of an overall majority.
In such a situation, no Third Front can be created and the BJP will have no difficulty finding the support required to make up the numbers.
Secondly, even if the BJP’s tally falls below the pollsters’ expectations, there is broad agreement that the Congress will not get much more than 100 seats.
Where will the other 180 or so required to obtain a parliamentary majority come from? There is no way a Third Front government can be formed without the participation of at least two (and probably all three) of the Grande Dames of Indian politics: Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mamata.
The way these ladies see it, one of them will lead the government and manage numerous allies while expecting the Congress to offer unquestioning support from outside. If the Congress accepts this formula, it will be signing its own death warrant.
No government comprising temperamental allies with a record of walking out of coalitions can be expected to last for much longer than a year or so.
When such a government falls, the electorate will vote for a stable alternative and the BJP will sweep into office with an overall majority.
The Congress, already mortally wounded by the misgovernance of UPA 2, will then be finished. The electorate will see it as a party of greedy opportunists who will do anything to retain some link to power.
Let’s not forget that we have been here before. The Congress’ attempts to keep AB Vajpayee out of office following the 1996 election (when the BJP was the single-largest party in the House) by backing the Third Front were viewed with so much hostility by the electorate that Vajpayee went on to win the next two elections, increasing his tally each time.
So, what should the Congress do? The morally correct thing to do would be to accept that the mood of the nation is against it. If the BJP gets at least 50 seats more than the Congress — which now seems certain — then the Congress should accept defeat with grace and dignity.
In 1989, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha. But rather than cobble together a coalition, Rajiv Gandhi accepted the verdict of the nation and moved to the Opposition benches. The Congress would only return to office, he said, when the people of India gave it the mandate to do so.
From the Congress’ perspective, the path of humility may also prove to be the most pragmatic way forward. One reason why the Congress’ campaign has floundered is because Rahul Gandhi has neither distanced himself from the failures of UPA 2 nor given us any reason to believe that he has new solutions to India’s problems.
Perhaps Rahul will come into his own in the Opposition, where he will seem less like a creature of privilege seeking to defend the indefensible. His father managed, when he was in the Opposition from 1989 to 1991, to erase memories of the haughty and distant last years of his prime ministership and to reinvent himself as a figure of hope.
Indian elections are notoriously difficult to predict. But if this one throws up the result that everybody is expecting, then the Congress should just accept the verdict of the people. It has a duty to oppose Narendra Modi and everything he stands for. But the place to do that is from the Opposition benches in Parliament. And not from behind the shelter of a third-rate Third Front coalition of convenience.
The views expressed by the author are personal.