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Third front: Cloud in distant sky

The blue skies across north India have sent temperatures soaring in New Delhi. There were no winter showers this time and the mercury is already rising above 30 degrees Celsius.

As it turns out, the political scene is also hotting up, with rumblings of a third front for the first time since May 2004. Close on the heels of the initiative by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, comes a thinly- veiled warning from the soft-spoken CPM general secretary Prakash Karat.

The Samajwadi Party has been feeling the Centre’s heat for some time now. There is little doubt that Congress managers are waiting for the right time to unleash Rahul Gandhi on the state to question Mulayam’s secular credentials and recapture the traditional support bases of the Gandhi family.

Given the sorry state of the Congress in the state, this may be a pipe dream, but the chief minister is taking no chances.

The pressure on the Samajwadi Party chief has come from different directions. The Centre has bent over backwards to help his bete noire Mayavati in the Taj corridor case, only acting after being prodded by the Supreme Court.

Most recently, Congress spokespersons have publicly welcomed the rebellion by Lok Sabha MP for Agra Raj Babbar.

Mulayam has hit back in a way he knows best, by politically taking on the UPA. Interestingly, he has chosen India’s stance on Iran as a test case. This is clearly a bid to appeal to anti-American sentiments as well as reassure minorities that he is not drifting towards the Sangh parivar.

The choice of N. Chandrababu Naidu is significant for he was the convener of the United Front for two years before deserting it in 1998 to extend “outside support” to the second Vajpayee government.

Naidu, like Mulayam, knows the way ahead is to combine forces and take on the ruling combine in New Delhi. To do so effectively, they need to puncture its claim of protecting minority interests.

Few have grasped that the move for a debate in Parliament comes on the eve of the visit of President George W. Bush to India. There is little doubt that his actions in Iraq and in the “war on terror” in general make him unpopular among large sections of Muslims worldwide.

The Congress’s anxiety on this score is evident in the Prime Minister’s appeal not to view foreign policy via prisms of community identities. Yet, this is no exception. The late Indira Gandhi was hailed as Durga after the Bangladesh war. Vajpayee gained from saffron overtones of Pokhran and Kargil.

The Congress’s worry is less about ethics in the political sphere and more about self-interest. It can ill afford a strong Opposition combine that reaches out to minorities and farmers, two groups which played a key role in voting it back into power, albeit at the head of a coalition.

No such formation can succeed without a strong base in Uttar Pradesh in the north and Andhra Pradesh in the south. The Congress re-established its dominance in the latter two years ago and is hoping to rebuild its base in the Hindi-belt state in the near future.

There is a second dimension to the Mulayam-Naidu combine. In April 1999, it was the socialist strongman who blocked the emergence of a Congress-led coalition after Vajpayee’s defeat on the floor of the House. It is only logical he should seek to revive an anti-Congress platform. Naidu was the prop that held up three successive non-Congress ministries from 1996 right through till 2004. He now realises he needs to move beyond his dalliance with saffron.

There, the similarities end. Mulayam is sitting pretty as the single-largest party from Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha. The Telugu Desam Party is yet to recover from the drubbing it got in May 2004 and has not recovered ground in subsequent by-elections.

The real test will be whether they can reach out with a broadly secular platform to constituents of both the NDA and the UPA. This will be the real litmus test.

The CPM and its allies have reason to adopt a more confrontational stance. The defeat of the airport employees’ strike marked a new low in its relations with the Manmohan Singh ministry. Not only was there no rollback on the bids for the Delhi and Mumbai airports, the victory may well embolden the government to press ahead with other reforms unpalatable to the Left.

The timing of the Assembly elections due in May in Kerala and Bengal adds to but does not entirely account for the chill in ties between the Marxists and the Congress. The larger factor surely is the marginalisation of the Left’s influence on economic and foreign policy-making.

No third front is possible without the Left but the latter is not yet ready to take the plunge. The larger strategic goal of keeping the BJP out of power seems less urgent but has not disappeared from its calculations. The problem is that the Congress is slowly inching its way to a more dominant role, and hemming in the CPM.

Yet, the third front has only become attractive in the past when there has been a complete collapse of the Congress’s plans. This was the situation in 1989 and again in 1996. Today, the Congress, though depleted, is in no mood to retreat.

More seriously, the ties forged with the Left in the NDA regime are still intact. They are fraying at the edges but are yet to unravel.

Till that happens, the third front will be like the clouds in the skies over New Delhi, visible but quite a distance away.

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