Debating India


It is not an easy alternative

Monday 2 May 2005, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

Thanks to the numbers game, there has never been a genuine Indian third alternative. If the United Progressive Alliance Government goes, the allies will be worse off.

THE THIRD front is in the news again, although the Left parties have ruled out its emergence any time soon (the Communist Party of India-Marxist has resolved to work towards an alternative outside of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party as "the political situation matures for it."). It is interesting nonetheless that the idea came up over and again at the CPI(M)’s 18th Congress - it figured in the inaugural speech, in the political resolution, at the concluding rally and later at a press conference addressed by newly elected general secretary Prakash Karat. The front was also a major preoccupation at the Samajwadi Party’s sixth national conference, where the surprise guest was A.B. Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India.

So what are the realistic chances that the third alternative will become the first choice? The answer is built into the question. The first requirement of power is a simple majority. The potential partners must be able on their own to win 272 or more seats in a House of 543. Put another way, a non-Congress, non-BJP government can come about only when the combined strength of prospective third front constituents exceeds the combined tally of the Congress and the BJP.

Cong-BJP majority

Between them, the Congress and the BJP hold 283 seats in the current Lok Sabha, which is a clear, if theoretical, majority. However, it is not as if a third front government was a possibility at any other time. The Congress and the Jan Sangh/BJP have outnumbered the regional players in every single Lok Sabha since 1952. The only exception was 1977 when the Congress and the Jan Sangh component of the Janata Party held 247 seats in a House of 542 (see box.) However, this was of no material value given the pro-active role played by the Jan Sangh and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the aftermath of the Emergency and in the formation of the Janata Party Government.

Thanks to the numbers game, there has never been a genuine Indian third alternative. The so-called third front governments have all been at the mercy of the Congress or the BJP, rendering them susceptible to blackmail and pressures. Third front members will surely remember the unhappy experiences of the 1989 National Front Government and of the 1996 United Front Government. One was toppled by the BJP and the other by the Congress. In other words, if the United Progressive Alliance Government went, the allies will be worse off: they will exchange a situation where the Congress exists at their pleasure for one where they exist at the pleasure of the Congress - or of the BJP, should they regroup and opt to lean on the Hindutva Party.

As an idea, the third front is incomparable, aligned as it is to the genius, diversity, and contradictions of the Indian polity. By contrast the mainline parties represent a unitary vision that is hierarchy-bound and resistant to change. The third alternative, at least in theory, comprises forces that have historically fought the status quo: in that sense it is inherently federal in spirit and more naturally inclined towards social justice. However, for the very reason that many of the "alternative" players have come up the hard way, they also tend to be authoritarian and opportunistic. There is little internal democracy in the parties run by Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, and Jayalalithaa. As for opportunism, Kanshi Ram once famously defended this attribute in the Bahujan Samaj Party. If seizing opportunities was opportunism, he was proud to be an opportunist, the BSP leader said. Indeed, purists may cavil at the BSP’s frequent and "unprincipled" alliances with its "manuwadi" foe but the fantastic growth graph of Ms. Mayawati’s party is proof that the Hindutva taint caused it no harm.

So we face a multiplicity of inter-related problems here, starting with the impatience of the regional and marginal players to access power - which is seen as the swiftest route to influence and growth. This involves making short-term alliances and compromises, which, however, dilute the ideological cohesion vital for the viability of any alternative front. Thus, third front unity has invariably been transitory, achieved not to implement a collective, long-term vision but as a momentary response to one or another political challenge. And since this challenge always came from either the Congress or the BJP, the third front inevitably became a second front that took the support of the Jan Sangh/BJP to oppose the Congress, and then the support of the Congress to oppose the BJP.

The early fronts were born in opposition to the Congress. The first anti-Congress coalition governments came up in 1967 in the Hindi belt States. These regimes included the Jan Sangh, which ran an overtly communal campaign on cow protection during the preceding elections. In Bihar, the Jan Sangh and its sworn enemy, the CPI, were both in government. Atal Bihari Vajpayee justified this decision in terms of the compelling need to rescue the people from the Congress (source: Christophe Jaffrelot; The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India). The governments were programmed to self-destruct and they did.

Jayaprakash Narayan’s 1974 call for a "Total Revolution" and the imposition of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi culminated in the formation in 1977 of the Janata Party into which the Jan Sangh, the Lok Dal and others merged their identity. The Janata Party Government fell in 1979, following a bitter and prolonged battle over the Jan Sangh component’s continuing relationship with the RSS. The irony is underlined by the fact that in early 1997 several stalwarts of the Janata Party, including Chandra Shekhar and Madhu Limaye paid obeisance at the RSS headquarters and sought its cooperation.

Bofors brought anti-Congressism once again to the fore and the result was the BJP-and-Left-supported National Front Government of 1989. The RSS machinery worked over time to ensure the victory of V.P. Singh who barely a year later was to emerge as a messiah of Muslims. It was a paradox of the times that a government formed in opposition to the Congress and with the help of the BJP collapsed because Hindutva had become a Frankenstein’s Monster.

The Congress’ authoritarianism paled before the communal violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Hindutva party’s narrow, sectarian worldview threatened the multi-cultural vision that had sustained India, and thus in 1996, the United Front Government reversed the earlier arrangement - the regional constituents of the former National Front now took the support of the Congress to isolate the BJP. The Congress’ whimsicality not just ended the experiment; it drove members of the anti-BJP front into the waiting arms of the very party they had shunned and denounced as communal.

Many hurdles

The Vajpayee Government’s second term was a success and not least because the numbers provided safety: no one constituent of the coalition was in a position to wield the veto. The United Progressive Alliance’s longevity is dependent largely on the Left, which has a record of sustaining coalitions. So, unless the Congress wilfully and wantonly damages its relations with the Left, the third front option is unlikely to come into play.

And when it does, the front will have many hurdles to negotiate. If India’s 14 Lok Sabhas tell a story, it is that the third front is not an easy alternative. Even assuming the combined Congress-BJP strength falls short of 272 in a future Lok Sabha, an autonomous third front government will not materialise unless all other parties miraculously unite. This means the BSP and the SP have to bury the hatchet; this means the allies of the BJP and the Congress (most of whom are bound to these parties in the States) have to be ready to strike out on their own. Can the Janata Dal(U), the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena afford to snap their links with the BJP? Can Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad, Shibu Soren, and M. Karunanidhi decide they do not need the Congress in their respective States?

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