Debating India

An incipient Third Force

Saturday 3 July 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

The idea of a Third Force remains confined to the NCP and the Samajwadi Party and its fortunes seem to be an inverse function of the credibility with which the Congress(I) under Sonia Gandhi is able to project its claims as the sole alternative to the BJP-led alliance.

in New Delhi

THE bonding and breaking of political alliances is normally the principal focus of attention in the prelude to national elections. But this time around, the conflict situation in Kargil has tended noticeably to subdue the fervour of political deal-making.

Political activity acquired a certain momentum when Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav announced on June 17 that they intended to join forces at the national level. It was an alliance that was foretold from the moment Sharad Pawar parted company with the Congress(I) and spun off the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The two had teamed up to mutual profit in the 1998 general elections, which represented a distinct revival of political fortunes for Sharad Pawar. The shared aversion to the prospect of a government headed by Sonia Gandhi was another bonding factor.

The incipient Third Force still remains confined to the NCP and the Samajwadi Party. Its fortunes seem at this moment to be an inverse function of the credibility with which the Congress(I) under Sonia Gandhi is able to project its claims as the sole alternative to the alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. A fresh impetus perhaps was rendered to the Third Force by the conspicuous failure of Sonia Gandhi’s first public rally in this election season. The crowd that turned up at Varanasi on June 18 to listen to her plea that single-party rule be restored at the Centre, was no more than 12,000-strong. Not only did it cause a dent in the Congress(I)’s ambitions of revival in the northern region but it led to a certain degree of acrimony within its top leadership in Uttar Pradesh.

After the mawkish show of loyalty to the leader that followed Sharad Pawar’s rebellion, the Varanasi rally seemed to bring the Congress(I) back full circle - to the earlier uneasy equilibrium between regional leaders. An inquiry into the causes for the poor show is under way at the All India Congress Committee office. And Salman Khurshid, Sonia Gandhi’s appointee as the Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) Committee president, has already made his disdain for the older generation of leaders very evident, with unsubtle suggestions that they are spent forces who can do no worse than disrupt an occasional rally.

Sonia Gandhi chose a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood for her rally, expecting to prove demonstratively that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s claims to the minority allegiance were a thing of the past. She also chose to make a fairly strong overture towards the small but influential Brahmin community in the State by unveiling a statue of Kamlapati Tripathi, once a patriarch of Congress(I) politics in the region. Clearly, Congress(I) strategists are working on the assumption that the reconstitution of the party’s traditional coalition, involving Brahmins, the religious minorities and Dalits, is an eminently feasible proposition. As a strategic perspective, this cuts right at the core of Third Force politics in U.P.

This requires that the Congress(I) make a significant effort to bring on board the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has proven that it is not easily dislodged from its core constituency among the U.P. Dalits. But the BSP clearly is not interested. Its rather volatile leader, Mayawati, publicly proclaimed that it would take an act of lunacy to forge a political partnership with the Congress(I). The basis for this assertion is her assessment that the BSP’s votes are more easily transferred to the Congress(I) than vice versa. But at the same time, Mayawati also distanced herself from the incipient "Third Force", dismissing both Pawar and Mulayam Singh as "agents of the BJP".

Another vehicle of Dalit politics, the Republican Party of India - which has significant pockets of influence in Maharashtra - is currently torn between conflicting perceptions. A faction led by the veteran, R.S. Gavai, believes that it should pitch its tent firmly in the Congress(I) camp. But the Ramdas Athavale group is equally insistent, on grounds of pragmatism, that the party’s future lies with Sharad Pawar and the NCP.

Other regional groupings, which might have naturally gravitated towards the concept of the Third Force, have shown no particular enthusiasm. N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party has been assiduously wooed by Pawar’s men. But he is unlikely to go with any formation that will not confer concrete electoral benefits in his confrontation with the Congress(I) in Andhra Pradesh. On current reckoning, his inclination seems to be towards the BJP, which could bring him short-term rewards at the cost of long-term possibilities. But in dismissing the NCP as a factor that has no bearing in his home State, he has confined himself to the enigmatic promise that he will clarify his position in relation to the BJP at an "appropriate time".

The best hope for the Third Force would then seem to be Congress(I) dissidents from the various States. Sowmya Ranjan Patnaik, son-in-law of the deposed Orissa Chief Minister Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, has been recruited into the NCP Working Committee. But the signal of emerging dissent was sufficient for Sonia Gandhi to intervene personally with an appeal to the older Patnaik to keep the faith. He seems for the moment to be mollified, but may need a concrete signal that he will be consulted on the distribution of the party ticket, to stay on board.

P.A. Sangma, the NCP’s second-ranking leader, was meanwhile mobilising his forces in northeastern India. He is confident that he will manage to induce many of the substantial leaders of the Congress(I) to join him. And while he has not had any conspicuous sign of success yet, an accretion to the ranks could result from the resentments that the process of ticket distribution invariably engenders.

Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has been a notable absentee from all Third Force confabulations, despite being allied with Mulayam Singh Yadav in the political federation known as the Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM). The steady estrangement between the two has been evident since Mulayam Singh blocked Sonia Gandhi’s effort to put together a minority Congress(I) government last April. Laloo Prasad and his wife, Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi, were recently dinner guests at the Gandhi household, where he is learnt to have reaffirmed his intention to fight the elections in alliance with the Congress(I). Yet the two Yadav chieftains still claim that the RLM is intact, whether with the intention of a formal political understanding later or with the more modest goal of avoiding public acrimony.

The Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), meanwhile, met to provide its most authoritative confirmation yet that the days of "equidistance" between the Congress(I) and the BJP are past. The Kerala unit of the party argued in vain that the notion still had relevance and was in fact a practical necessity in its immediate political milieu. But the Polit Bureau was overwhelmingly of the view that "equidistance" would only translate itself into additional sustenance for the BJP. There was a formal commitment made to work towards a third alternative, although in practical terms the diversity of situations that the party will have to reconcile itself to makes this a goal that would be difficult to realise.

The Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Forward Bloc (F.B.), smaller constituent parties of the Left Front, were not enthused. Debabrata Biswas, general secretary of the F.B., spoke against the new CPI(M) attitude towards the Congress(I). And the Central Committee of the RSP resolved at its meeting on June 20 that the BJP and the Congress(I) were both undesirable associations for the Left.

The CPI National Council also reiterated its resolve to work for a third alternative to both the dominant parties. But party general secretary A.B. Bardhan was at pains to dispel any suggestion of a rift with the CPI(M). Writing in the party’s official organ, Bardhan argued that the "potential constituents of the ’Third Front’ cannot and need not be expected to have the same view on every political, economic and social issue." He added: "It is possible that some may believe in equidistance while others do not. After all, there is this difference within the Left Front parties in West Bengal. This should not and will not become a dividing line. The point is to have an open dialogue on this and other issues and to take a common decision when the time comes."

The shape of future embarrassments was beginning to emerge in Kerala, where Congress(I) veteran K. Karunakaran termed as "impractical" the policy of equidistance that the State unit of the CPI(M) was advocating. The Third Front, in this interpretation, was a "mirage" which the Left would do well not to set off in pursuit of.

In the words of senior Congressman Pranab Mukherjee, his party’s strategy today is to work out a series of State-level "understandings". These would stop short of being formal alliances and would not entail a joint platform or a concerted campaign. Thus, Shankarsinh Vaghela’s Rashtriya Janata Party in Gujarat, Jayalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu and Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD are all prospective partners for the limited context of the elections. Except for Laloo Prasad, these do not yet touch upon the core of Third Force politics. But if the Left remains committed to its current position, then the Congress(I) would have succeeded in driving a stake through the heart of Third Force politics.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 14, July 03 - 16, 1999

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