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THIRD CHANCE FOR THE THIRD FRONT

Is there any chance at all for a third alternative on the political landscape' The auguries are mixed and the future of such a formation uncertain. But it can no longer be ruled out. Events in northern and western India point to the real possibility of a third front re-emerging in Indian politics. The key factor working in favour of such a realignment is that there are large regions or sections of the body politic that are not fully integrated into the formations headed by Sonia Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Until now, the adroit management of contradictions by the latter has not only propelled him into high office but looks set to be the single greatest factor working in his favour in the run-up to the next general elections.

But the continued viability of regional formations points to the fact that these forces can grow stronger the moment both the larger parties look more vulnerable. This is precisely what happened in 1996, though that exact course of events is unlikely to repeat itself. The Bharatiya Janata Party has come out of the near-total isolation it suffered in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Congress too is busy preparing to take power rather than lick its wounds after a bruising electoral defeat as was the case in 1996.

But for a variety of reasons, the possibility of a third front cannot be wished away. Such a development would belie the assertion of many commentators that the Indian polity is now fully or almost fully polarized along one fault line. You are either with the BJP or the Congress. Or else you are out of the picture.

This is a line of thought that appears to be validated by the way the votes get divided up as in the recent vote of confidence in Parliament. It will get further empirical grounding as the campaign for the four assembly elections in northern India gets under way.

The problem is that this rather simple reading breaks down once the ground realities are examined. Regional gaps in the support base of the larger all-India parties are actually so commonplace that their consequences are not given due attention. Neither major national party rules in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state. Neither can hope to rule in Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu in the foreseeable future.

In much of the Hindi belt, including the four states going to polls, all eyes are on what the Bahujan Samaj Party does next. Indications are that it will for a time be a bitter adversary of the BJP. Rallying round its leader, Mayavati, as she fights her way through the courts, it may well enter into a closer engagement with the Congress, especially in central and northern India. The now ailing Kanshi Ram has often said that his party will work with “the B-team of the manuwadi parties against the A-team”. There is no second-guessing that it is the Congress that is a distant second in today’s India.

While the BSP’s own track record suggests that no one can predict where it will be even a year from now, this is not the case with other key players in the anti-BJP camp. Each has a different set of reasons for refusing to unite under the banner of the Congress in a pre-poll pact. But the net result is that these disparate groups may be driven to establish some loose coordination with each other. This will have two advantages. It will not surrender the entire anti-Hindutva space to the Congress. Further, it will enable them to possibly emerge as a strong lobby in the post-election phase. Depending on how things turn out, they may play kingmaker or, if the situation warrants, a queen-breaker. A union or even a tactical alignment of the Congress and the BSP will actually have the effect of distancing the former from Mulayam Singh Yadav. In fact, the upshot of the crackdown on Shiv Sena activists by the Samajwadi Party-led coalition in Ayodhya only deepens the coming competition between the regime and the Congress for the support of the religious minorities. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Samajwadi Party sees itself as the new ruling hegemon in Lucknow and that the road to Delhi lies through Lucknow.

In fact, this will create more space for closer ties between Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Nationalist Congress Party. The latter has the financial resources to offer a platform to Congressmen disgruntled with Sonia Gandhi’s leadership or the denial of tickets in the forthcoming assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh, V.C. Shukla has already shown that he can chip away at the Congress leader’s support base at the local level even if his vote-catching abilities are unproven. The Congress in turn will watch what happens next very carefully. After all, in a state where the difference between winner and loser is less than one per cent, a strong third force can tip the scales in the BJP’s favour.

Few would bet on the NCP-Congress alliance’s chances of going into the next elections with a unified platform either at the assembly or the Lok Sabha level. If Sharad Pawar manages to hold his party together, it will again play the spoiler in a clutch of states crucial to the Congress: Maharashtra, Goa, Chhattisgarh and Meghalaya. These states total 66 Lok Sabha seats and in a fight for the spot of the single largest party in the house, they may make all the difference.

Equally significant though easy to miss out is the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. It has displaced the BJP as the premier opposition player. With the continuing spate of farmers’ suicides, now over the 250 mark, former prime minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, has been attracting considerable crowds in the rural hinterland. The Congress led by S.M. Krishna is no pushover, but a semblance of unity among the warring Janata factions often makes them formidable on the ground.

Due to its different assessment of the situation, the Left Front is unlikely to help coalesce such a front. A large section of its leadership feels this may play right into the hands of the BJP, which it considers a key ideological adversary. But the left mainly faces a Congress-led opposition in at least two of its three bastions, Tripura and Kerala. Were the BJP to slip well below the present 183 mark, the left would be in a position to do business with a loose third front formation.

All this brings us to the question of questions, namely the consequences for the premier opposition party. If the Congress were stronger, it would be able to bind and unify allies against the ruling combine. But its continuing vulnerability as well as the all-too-real ground-level conflicts of interest with other parties prevents it from consolidating the anti-National Democratic Alliance vote in one pool. Having the most inexperienced leader in its history at the helm will also not help it deal with regional satraps who have fought their way to the top. Satraps would play a waiting game than surrender their options to a member of the Gandhi-Nehru family.

But that is to get ahead of the story. At the present juncture, the possibility of a third front is more remote than in 1996 but not as distant a prospect as it was during the last general elections. The Congress is a newcomer to the art of alliances and coalitions. It is only natural there will be other aspirants who have swum in these waters for much longer. Who the third front really harms most, the Congress or the BJP, will be worth watching.

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