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CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

 

OPINION
SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN | 11 MARCH, 2014

THIRD FRONT POLITICS: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS PASSED

It took just ten days for one of the principal props of the new experiment in "third force" politics to give way, threatening the stability of the entire edifice. There was good cheer in early-February when J. Jayalalitha, the stormy and wilful head of the AIADMK – one of two regional parties that has determined political fortunes in Tamil Nadu for close to four decades — appeared in public with the leadership of the two principal Left parties, vowing to stand together in electoral battles to come. Greater optimism dawned on February 25, when eleven parties assembled on a platform in Delhi to announce they would work together to establish an alternative to an inept Congress and an intolerant BJP, pooling electoral strengths in all domains where they had the means to influence outcomes and sitting together to work on common strategies after the results were in.

Election season in India is a time for otherwise implausible swings of loyalty, where principle is often the first casualty in the fevered pursuit of numbers. Nobody has better embodied that malaise than Ram Vilas Paswan, a stalwart for long years of what may be called the third force politics, who flirted briefly with the Hindutva brigade, before parting ways on a supposed matter of principle. Though the Gujarat riots of 2002 were the stated cause for his departure from the BJP alliance, observant political commentators found that a flimsy cover for the sense of offended hauteur he had long harboured over the inconsequential cabinet position he was assigned as reward for joining the BJP camp in 1999.

Paswan could not quite stick to his 2002 position since he was in quest of a minimum entitlement of seven seats that his proprietary political venture, the LJP, could contest in Bihar. He found himself severely at a disadvantage in negotiating with a larger proprietary concern, Laloo Prasad Yadav's RJD. Matters were not made any simpler by the third element in this bargain being the Congress, India's oldest and most hallowed political party which has in just about three decades managed – entirely on account of the laziness and pusillanimity of its membership – to transform itself into a family proprietorship. Paswan needed to contest two seats to assuage his own sense of insecurity. And then, he had to reserve seats for two brothers and an ambitious son who now aspires to inherit his political legacy. To forget his 2002 scruples and take the BJP and its controversial leader NarendraModi to his bosom, was a minor repudiation of political principle, since the larger cause of serving family interest was involved.

Jayalalitha is one among a trio of self-made single women – Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee being the others – who are sure to exert significant influence in the emerging political dispensation. Being herself averse to travel to Delhi, she sent a senior associate to the February 25 conclave of eleven parties, though that notion of a second-rung leadership and a chain of authority has little meaning in a party where she is sole arbiter. Early March, the AIADMK put an end to all the vain hopes that the parties of the Left had entertained when they embarked upon their latest effort in the sponsorship of third force politics. The two principal Left parties could not quite reconcile themselves to contesting fewer than six seats in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha, even without having a family constituency to appease, thought that six was not quite a worthwhile price for gaining the support of the Left: two was the most she was prepared to concede.

That calculus of narrow political interest is likely to be the rock on which the latest venture in third force politics founders. And in most vital arenas where third force politics might have an impact, its prospects are additionally clouded by the compelling pull of dynastic politics. Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party chieftain in Uttar Pradesh, only manages to keep his growing family happy by parcelling up the territory and the apparatus of governance between siblings, sons and a daughter-in-law, as exclusive domains where they can exercise authority, with utter discretion and complete lack of accountability. Though these family proprietorships are usually able to attract the allegiance of a wider network, typically based on caste, and build larger coalitions on an implicit understanding that patronage will be shared in the event that power is won, there seems to be tipping point at which they fail and begin to repel rather than attract mass loyalties. DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi, who heads the rival party of Dravida identity in Tamil Nadu, has seemingly reached that point as he watches two quarrelsome sons dismembering his political legacy with the possible consequence of plunging to ignominious defeat in the upcoming LokSabha polls.

Karunanidhi was part of third force politics in 1989 and then again in 1996 – the two occasions when as a brand, it has enjoyed some success on the national stage. In between, he was inundated by an electoral tidal wave in 1991 when Jayalalitha combined with the Congress in Tamil Nadu. The Congress though, proved unable to support the political burden of its alliance with Jayalalitha and splintered in Tamil Nadu in 1996, with one faction going along with the DMK and gaining handsome and immediate political rewards. With no choice but the discredited rump of the Congress in the 1998 general election, Jayalalitha chose the BJP and gained a rich and unexpected harvest of seats. A bitter parting of ways soon followed, precipitating the premature end of the first BJP-led ministry in 1999. Karunanidhi was quick to spot his main chance and hitch his fortunes to the BJP in the general election that followed, enjoying between 1999 and 2001, the rare luxury of being a dominant player in both state and national level politics. Jayalalitha stormed back to power in Tamil Nadu in 2001and immediately set about avenging all the real and perceived indignities she had suffered during her five years in the wilderness. Clinging to the BJP led alliance was in the circumstances, a vital survival imperative for the DMK. But as the 2004 general election approached, the DMK thought better of continuing in alliance with a party whose sectarian and divisive nature it suddenly awoke to, as if in a moment of revelation.

Rebuilding long dismantled bridges with the Congress in 2004, proved another shrewd move for the DMK, winning it a share in power at the Centre for an uninterrupted run of ten years. But as it remains tethered to this partnership in 2014, it cannot avoid a share in the discredit that shrouds the Congress-led UPA. For Jayalalitha to go along with the BJP would in this context, have been in conformity with the past trend of the two parties keeping a close watch over the other and doing the exact opposite of each other. Yet, she surprised all observers by announcing a partnership with the Left parties, though it took no more than a month for true form to be restored and that obvious aberration to be set right.

When it is not hostage to dynastic compulsions, third force politics suffers from the fickle loyalties of its main exponents. Other than the position of the Left parties, which has often wavered from stated principle, third force politics draws its main rationale from being the recourse of those who have nowhere else to go, for reasons connected with the configuration of local politics in states where they retain deepest interests. Where the Congress is a spent or a waning force, it becomes the favoured ally of local political parties who would much rather work with a coherently organised formation than a dispersed and diverse alliance with multiple leaders: Bihar and Tamil Nadu illustrate this phenomenon. A precondition here of course, is that the Congress should be able to submerge its organisational ego and accept a subordinate role, which is an act of effacement that it still finds difficult to execute in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh. That leaves the local chieftain of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh, as a prospective third force player, since the BJP remains – for all the impressive recent growth of the BSP – his principal foe, almost in existential terms.

The crisis of identity that TF politics faces today is part of a historical legacy. As a practical proposition, the TF has gained traction in national politics only in two electoral contests: those of 1989 and 1996. In both instances, success was briefly lived and involved recourse to the extraordinary parliamentary strategy of the "outside support" of ideologically very different entities. The device of the external supporter that is greater in numbers than the ruling party has a long and rather unsavoury history. It begins in 1979 with Indira Gandhi holding out an inducement to the restive peasant leader Charan Singh, to part ways with the Janata Party which he saw being increasingly dominated by the erstwhile Jana Sangh element. It led to the formation of a government that never faced Parliament, since the Congress withdrew support just as quickly as it was extended, once the purpose of wrecking the Janata Party was achieved.

External support became a device in mainstream politics once again in 1989 when after five years of misrule, Rajiv Gandhi's Congress was ousted from power though without any of the other parties even remotely gaining a workable number of seats. The Janata Dal (JD), which had been assembled from an assortment of fragments left from the days of the Janata Party, turned in a solid performance, winning 143 out of 244 seats contested, but its regional allies – such as the TDP in Andhra Pradesh and the DMK in Tamil Nadu – disappointed all expectations. In the event, the JD could only form a government with the endorsement – unconditional and arms' length when granted — of the BJP and the parties of the Left.

The BJP soon panicked at the consequences of its policy of responsibility without power, as the JD embarked on a vigorous programme of social justice and secularism that threatened to alienate its core upper-caste constituencies. The Congress, waiting in the wings, induced a disgruntled faction from the JD to pull out with an assurance of external support. That plan, implemented by Chandra Shekhar – the perennially dissenting Thakur from Ballia -- did not run aground quite so disastrously as Charan Singh's, since this government actually did face Parliament. But its lifespan was not very much longer.

The next phase when third force politics gained a certain relevance came after another full term of Congress misrule. The signals though were getting increasingly ominous. The JD no longer had very great credibility as a receptacle that could draw and adequately host growing anti-Congress sentiment. Of the 196 seats the party contested in 1996, it won a mere 46, down by close to a hundred from its record tally of 1989. And the signals from the right-wing of Indian politics were unmistakable: from 85 seats in 1989 and 121 in 1991, the BJP had grown to 161 seats.

This held out the definitive assurance that the political centre of gravity in a context of Congress failure, was more likely to shift rightwards than towards left and regional forces. Third force politics was salvaged in the context though, by the impressive performance of regional components, notably in Tamil Nadu. Yet the constitution of the government in 1996 was a curiosity in parliamentary history: a ruling bloc of around 125 was kept afloat in a house of 543 by the external sustenance of a 140-member Congress and a 53-member Left alliance. It was an arrangement liable to continual turbulence on account of real and imagined slights to the Congress' vital interests, including the hallowed memories of its reigning dynasty.

Unsurprisingly, the BJP was the principal gainer from the collapse of this particular phase of third force politics. The JD splintered yet again, keeping alive one of the most dependable stories of Indian political competition inherited from the early phase of home-grown "socialism". Several among the regional components of the third force in evident reaction to this peculiar pathology of Hindi belt politics – with a briefly lived extension in Orissa -- began to find a preferable alternative in the BJP. Association with a party of such markedly chauvinist inclinations was for several of them, a risk that could be surmounted. Continuing dependence on the quirky inheritors of the "socialist party" label was a hazard for their political relevance at the national level. An association with the BJP held fewer risks for regional formations that did not see the Hindutva party as a direct competitor in home turfs. The Muslim vote with its varying impact across India's political topography could be appeased with the affable and relatively sober visage of an AtalBehari Vajpayee at the BJP's helm.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 were a rather difficult pill to swallow for many among the BJP's partners, who nonetheless kept faith with their ally in the expectation that the Vajpayee strain of moderation would continue under his putative successor Lal Krishna Advani. Meanwhile, with several among the JD fragments being in intimate association with the BJP, the only option for those who had no place else to go, was the Congress. Today, there are at least six fragments of the JD that have a presence on the national political radar. They all operate with conspicuous disregard for principle and a sharp eye out for their main chance. The BJD in Orissa parted ways with the BJP just ahead of the 2009 general elections, having discovered the Gujarat riots and the violence against Dalit Christians in Orissa's tribal districts after a convenient time lag. Lalu Prasad's RJD persists in its alliance with the Congress since it is now in an existential crisis and a poor performance in 2014 could lead to rapid extinction. The SP in UP, bolstered by a handsome win in the 2012 assembly elections but hamstrung since then by a record of nepotism, corruption and maladministration, needs to maintain equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP to sustain its political identity, but clearly has little use for an alliance prior to the elections that could limit its choices in its aftermath. The JD(U) in Bihar has parted ways with the BJP in high dudgeon at NarendraModi's anointment as prime ministerial candidate, but cannot quite make common cause with the Congress because that option has been pre-empted by the RJD, its mortal enemy within the local milieu. The LJP has rushed in eagerly to fill the breach created by the JD(U) withdrawal. And alone among this fractious crew, former Prime Minister H.D. DeveGowda's JD(S) in Karnataka, twice disappointed in love, has decided to steer a course clear of both the BJP and the Congress, leaving third force politics as his sole realistic option.

The third force politics has a prospect of success only when it has a central skeletal structure around which diverse other parties from India's vastly variegated political landscape could adhere. Parties of the left have staked much valuable political capital in sponsoring this variety of politics, with meagre reward and little success in fostering a sense of enduring mass loyalty towards the principles involved. They find the prospects in their main arenas of Kerala and West Bengal rather uncertain and long established constituencies in other states shrinking under the compelling pulls of narrow identity based politics. Perhaps they are likely to emerge as the principal loser from this latest and rather quixotic effort to restore to relevance an idea whose time has clearly passed.

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