India’s ‘Third Front’ shakes up political landscape
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India’s ‘Third Front’ shakes up political landscape

By Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

In the run up to the parliamentary polls in India, almost all political parties have embarked on an early campaign. This is being nosedived into the rounds already being made by political parties and leaders for local elections in four key north Indian states in November-December. While so far the race has essentially been a two-horse race with the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party leading small clusters of political parties as their electoral partners, the pitch has been queered by the entry of 17 political parties who are threatening to make a common cause. Last week they came together on a joint platform at the Convention for People’s Unity Against Communalism. Though the prospects for the formation of a pan-Indian political alliance distinct from the ones led by the Congress and BJP – as a natural follow-up of this meet – appears remote at this stage, but the coming together is cause for worry for the two largest parties.

The reason for unease in the Congress and BJP is that in the Indian political lexicon, anti-communalism means a stance against the BJP. Communalism in India is the word that describes religious sectarianism and its use in politics by parties. The reason for the BJP’s discomfort is that of the 17 parties present in the Capital’s grouping on October 30, it was hoping for an electoral alliance with at least a couple of them. In contrast to this, the Congress fears a division in the anti-BJP vote if the new grouping goes its own way and parties stay away from the alliance led by it. This would result in a split in the anti-BJP vote in several crucial states and would benefit the saffron party and its leader, the extreme Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Already, the Nationalist Congress Party – a member of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government and an electoral partner of the Congress in the crucial state of Maharashtra, which at 48 elects the second largest brigade to Parliament – joined the Convention in New Delhi sending shock waves down the ruling party.

Part of the reason for the so-called Third Front still being a romantic draw is that it is often posited as the morally correct counter to a corruption-ridden Congress party and the communally-oriented BJP which continues to pursue the policy of social polarization. India has in the past had six prime ministers who can be said to have been part of the political forces that either back or are part of this Third Front. It is a different matter that none of these governments lasted full terms and collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

In the almost 10 months since it became evident that Modi would lead the BJP charge to the political citadel, the BJP has not gained any new ally, lost one crucial partner yet has won in strength purely on the basis of the rising popularity of its electoral mascot. In contrast, the Congress has failed to pull its act together and has continued on the slide downward. Despite this, the BJP is yet to reach a position of safety and most surveys and estimates fathom that even in a best-case scenario, the party is going to be significantly short of a majority on its own.

In a House of 543 members, the role of the so-called Third Front could become pivotal to government formation if the combined strength of the BJP and the Congress hovers around the 300 mark – give or take a few seats. In case the BJP or the Congress forms a national coalition, it is essential to win upward of 200 seats if they wish to avoid coalition partners from breathing down its neck. Since coalitions became inevitable in India from the mid-1990s, the Congress managed to win more than 200 seats just once – in 2009, while the BJP stayed a neat 10 per cent below this in 1998 and 1999, the two occasions when it headed a government at the Centre with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister.

The BJP under Modi will expect to go beyond that mark and thereby negate the antipathy towards him and also force other parties to come to the negotiation table after the elections on the terms set by the BJP. Even those smaller parties that are traditionally anti-Congress because the Congress is their principal adversary remain wary of the BJP and Modi because of the fear of losing the minority vote and also because of being subsumed by the BJP in the event of pan-Indian support for him.

The 17-party grouping at the moment is most importantly an attempt on the part of the regional parties to retain their political bases by sending a signal to supporters that they are not isolated from the national mainstream. As of now, it appears that despite outward signs, chances are high that the 2014 election will be marked by fewer pre-poll alliances and more explorations in post-poll negotiations for forming a government. Parties would like to get the maximum number of seats in their bag before sitting to negotiate government formation.