Call it the charge of the secular brigade, or the belated surfacing of their instinct for survival, or their tardy recognition of the new importance the electorate now ascribes to national personality. Yet, from whichever perspective you view the imminent re-emergence of a Third Front, this exercise seems akin to pouring old wine into another old bottle the cork of which is missing.
Therefore, come the general elections, not only will the wine have lost its heady zip, but will most likely have also soured. In the electoral mall, offering to voters a plethora of choices, the Third Front seems the latter part of the vote-one-get-one-free offer. You vote for one of the 11 parties banding together and you will also have voted for the Third Front.
Perhaps, the compulsion to enhance the lure of some of the 11 parties has fast-forwarded the birth of the Third Front, whose principal architect, CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat, had persistently ruled out its possibility through much of 2013. Even as late as two days before the anti-communal convention in Delhi on October 30, Karat said, “Around 13 parties will come for the convention, and some want to form a Third Front. But there has been no progress so far.” Obviously, he and others have had a rethink since then.
Four factors seem to have triggered a rethink among them. One, the growing possibility of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi riding the momentum of his party’s victories in December to make deep electoral inroads in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where state-based parties have been lead players till now. This has spawned factor No 2: the anxiety that Modi’s designs on the Hindi heartland could lead to the mutually antagonistic caste groups banding together under the overarching Hindu religious identity, leading to a sharp communal polarisation. This fear doesn’t seem unfounded in the wake of the riots in Muzaffarnagar.
This situation is perilous for non-national parties — the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP, and Janata Dal (U) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar — which draw their support principally from a combination of lower/OBC castes and Muslim voters. Might not Modi’s OBC persona wean away sections of lower/middle caste voters to the BJP’s fold? Might it also not drive the Muslims to the Congress or its alliance which, at least nationally, is seen as the best bet to stop the community’s bête noire, BJP, from coming to power at the Centre? A Third Front, thus, could communicate the message to Muslims that they have a secular, national option other than the UPA. To the middle castes, it holds out the hope of an OBC leader becoming Prime Minister.
Three, the buzz the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has created through its decision to go national is a portent of the third space in Indian politics getting overcrowded. The 11-party Front tacitly marks out this space for traditional political outfits, challenging the AAP’s appropriation of it. This also guarantees to the Left its moral and ideological pre-eminence in the non-Congress, non-BJP realm. This is why the Left has been attacking the AAP for not opposing the neoliberal economic policies, which, from the Marxist viewpoint, is essential for any party to qualify for the Third-Front moniker.
Four, there are signs that Indian voters have started to assign a greater value to entities having a national presence or personality than they did in the last two decades. Perhaps, the growing urbanisation of India has created an emerging consciousness that privileges the national over the regional, the politics of interest over that of caste or religious identities. This not only explains the AAP phenomenon, but also the marked tendency among leaders to recalibrate their caste-religious appeal with ideas of economic development and the BJP’s 272+ mission.
In this sense, an entity such as the Third Front provides a national veneer to its constituents who have a predominantly regional personality. This places them, at least theoretically, on an equal footing with their regional competitors who are either the allies of the Congress or the BJP. For instance, Nitish Kumar can woo Muslims with the claims that he, like Lalu Prasad Yadav, belongs to a national alliance which, too, is in a position to thwart the BJP-led NDA’s bid for power. This will also be the campaign-line of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who should be wary of Muslims deserting him for Mayawati. Their arguments might seem persuasive for Muslims because the current tally of Congress seats is widely expected to dwindle in the forthcoming elections.
Again, since the emerging Third Front has ruled out naming its prime ministerial candidate before the elections, the one among its constituents that bags the highest number of seats could see its leader get the prized post in case, as is widely expected, neither the NDA nor the UPA gets a majority on its own. Might not this give greater resonance to the Jayalalithaa-for-PM campaign in Tamil Nadu? Might not the same logic prompt the Odisha voters to rally behind Naveen Patnaik, and dissuade non-Yadav OBC sections of the UP electorate from choosing Modi over Mulayam?
Undoubtedly, the Third Front is predominantly an electoral strategy, but its efficacy is debatable, largely because the regional or federal agenda, like wine in a bottle without a cork, has been in the public domain for far too long to retain the uniqueness of its flavour. If anything, the principle of regionalism appears diluted in comparison to, say, the National Front of 1989. A bewildering range of regional satraps are outside the Third Front umbrella, from Mamata Banerjee to Lalu Prasad Yadav to Prakash Singh Badal to Mayawati to K Karunanidhi to just about everyone from about-to-be-bifurcated Andhra Pradesh.
This would-be front doesn’t even have the time to repackage its agenda to dominate the political discourse. That honour arguably belongs to Modi and the AAP. You even wonder whether Patnaik or Jayalalithaa or Mulayam share the Left’s economic vision. No doubt, the Left has helped cobble the Third Front in the hope of ensuring that the overall tilt of Indian polity is to the left-of-centre and secular. But, really, can it become the ideological pied-piper of Indian politics with its tally of seats not expected to be anywhere near the high of 59 it reached in 2009? Only a delusional optimist would say ‘yes’.
The author is a Delhi-based journalist