As the Manmohan Singh Government is settling down and coming to terms with the harsh reality of running a coalition, the media seems preparing for the next elections. And this is reflected in all the debate in newspapers and TV channels about a Third Front taking shape. But then, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the reality that exists and the idea.
A brief recap of the conditions in which the idea of a third front began taking shape will be in order, at this stage, to place the debate in context. In 1989, soon after the elections to the Lok Sabha were over and the Congress party failed to gather a majority, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, then the general secretary of the CPI(M) issued a cryptic statement. That his party will provide outside support to a non-Congress formation to form the Government; EMS also added that such a Government shall not consist of the BJP.
The CPI(M), in other words, set the agenda for a new brand of anti-Congressism. The Lohiaite scheme that was given shape in 1967 (with the formation of united front Governments in many Northern Indian States) was altered drastically by the CPI(M). And in many ways, this new experiment was going to be a departure from the Janata experience too. It was no longer necessary for the non-Congress opposition to give up their distinct identities and merge into a political formation. Instead, the new arrangement would provide the space for parties to consolidate their own bases and yet work out an arrangement where they all came together against the Congress party.
This was indeed a far more pragmatic arrangement than the Janata Party. And the fact is that unlike whatever happened to the Samyukta Vidayak Dals (unity of legislators) in the Sixties – all of them cracked up sooner than they were formed because the leaders of this coalition could never trust each other – the National Front that was cobbled together in 1989 did not collapse in the same way.
This experiment was carried out with more cohesion in 1996 when H.D.Deve Gowda emerged its leader. The Janata Dal, it may be recalled was a motley small crowd of 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha then. And I.K.Gujral became Prime Minister after him.
The important fact that needs to be stressed here is that the Governments headed by V.P.Singh, Gowda and Gujral would have lasted their terms if the respective coalitions they headed had commanded a simple majority in Parliament. In other words, these Governments did not last their terms only because the ruling combine in all these instances were far short of a simple majority in the Lok Sabha. While V.P.Singh’s Government fell because the BJP, an outside supporter, played its own partisan game. Similarly, both Gowda and Gujral were brought down by the Congress party, once again an outside supporter.
The point is that the third front idea did not last long because this was inimical to the Congress party’s interests. In this sense, unlike the Janata experiment that collapsed under its own weight and because the leaders who constituted the party began fighting with each other, the National Front and the United Front lasted longer than the skeptics expected.
This indeed is a fact that the media and commentators must keep in mind. And hence stop bothering about the stability that such an idea can provide. The fact is that the National Front and the United Front were stable formations in their own way and distinct from the Janata experiment. This change was what EMS Namboodiripad could notice in 1989.
Well. Does this mean that a Third Front could be a reality in the coming couple of years? The answer is No! There is no way that the Congress party can be wished away. In a sense, a repeat of 1977 is not likely. The Congress party will continue to be relevant in about 150 Lok sabha seats across the country. And this could be the case with the BJP too despite the crisis that is haunting the party since the NDA lost power in May 2004. The left parties will remain relevant in about 50 Lok Sabha seats. And a variety of regional parties – the DMK, AIADMK, TDP, AGP, BSP, Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena, BJD, RJD, JD(U), Akali Dal and such others – as also such sub-regional outfits – the PMK, DPI, Kerala Congress, Muslim League, Apna , Lok Dal, etc., -- will manage to win elections in the remaining 200 Lok sabha constituencies.
This would mean that either the Congress or the BJP will emerge as coalition leaders – prepoll or postpoll – rather than agree to sustain a Government by the regional or sub-regional outfits. And these regional parties too will find it better to support either the Congress or the BJP as long as they are accommodate in the coalition with important ministerial berths; and the ``national’’ party agrees to support the regional party in their respective State.
In other words, a third front is nothing more than a pipe-dream. (EOM)