Political competition is all about offering alternatives — or pretending to do so. But there is something unreal about the “third front” that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) intermittently talks about as a possible alternative to the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. So vague is the idea that even some top leaders of the party, such as Jyoti Basu, refuse to take it seriously. Yet, the formation of a third front is likely to figure in the party’s congress next month, thanks mainly to its general secretary, Prakash Karat. It is not difficult to see why Mr Karat and his fellow-travellers in the party’s leadership want to revive the idea. It is a desperate ploy for a party that plays a double, and often contradictory, role of supporting as well as opposing the Congress-led government at the Centre. Talking of a third front is the party’s idea of blackmailing the Congress. But the BJP’s recent electoral successes in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh could make the CPI(M)’s games irrelevant. When the general elections come next year, the party could find itself supporting the Congress again. Its argument for doing so could be the same as in 2004 — keeping the BJP away from power. Realpolitik could once again expose the unreality of a third front.
The question of political realism apart, the idea of a third front smacks of opportunism and worse. The United Front of 1996 was a similar attempt. Such political alliances are not only incapable of offering a stable government at the national level but they also become victims of narrow ambitions of regional parties and leaders. The parties that come together with the sole objective of keeping the two national parties away from power have almost nothing in common. Regional politics overtakes issues of governance for such an alliance. Worse still, personal ambitions of the regional satraps make it unworkable. This is because most of the regional parties, unlike the Congress and the BJP, are one-leader affairs. The CPI(M) may be different in this respect, but its strength in just three states makes it only a marginal player in national politics. Its present importance in New Delhi derives from its support to the government of Manmohan Singh. There is an element of political dishonesty about the CPI(M)’s rhetoric on a third front. The party knows how futile the idea is, and yet harps on it. But then, politicians love to believe in their own propaganda.