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Can the Third Front destabilise Dr Singh?
June 26, 2006
The Manmohan Singh regime has seen more than its fair share of confrontations with the judiciary. (Does anyone recall the Supreme Court squashing Arjun Singh's bid to win popularity on the cheap by altering the nature of Aligarh Muslim University?) But one ruling may have come as a blessing in disguise for the Congress.
On June 20, Justice P S Narayana of the Andhra Pradesh high court quashed the notification for the ongoing Panchayati Raj elections. Very briefly, the judgment accepted the petitioners' plea that there was no valid electoral roll for the purpose of the polls.
As I write, elections to 16,133 Mandal Parishads and 1,097 Zilla Parishad have effectively been halted. (Unless the Y S Rajasekhar Reddy ministry files -- and wins -- an appeal to a high court division bench.) The Telugu Desam, which had complained loudly and frequently of irregularities in the electoral rolls, is beaming from ear to ear. All of this should be a slap in the face for the Congress. Or should it?
The local body polls in Andhra Pradesh bid fair to be an embarrassment for the ruling Congress. The reason is the rapprochement between the CPI-M and the Telugu Desam. These two had once been allies, until Chandrababu Naidu decided that it would be more profitable to ally with the BJP in the wake of the 1998 general election.
The split was acrimonious, and the CPI-M was delighted when it got its revenge by aligning with the Congress in 1994. It took just two years to wash away the bitterness of the past.
The alliance between the CPI-M and the Telugu Desam, while it has the blessings of both CPI-M General Secretary Prakash Karat and Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu, was clearly impelled by grassroots pressure. Local leaders had been clamouring for such an understanding long before the high command of either party gave the green signal. 'We have taken this decision as part of a policy,' Uma Maheswara Rao, one of the CPI-M district secretaries in the state, announced to the world.
In other words, the partnership forged during the agitation over the fuel price hike was being taken to another level, not just a tactical move but a 'policy' decision.
The Congress was infuriated. 'How can the CPI-M join hands with the TDP which supported a communal party and followed anti-people policies for 10 years?' went the refrain. The Andhra Pradesh high court judgment has thus come as a reprieve, a chance to mend relations with the CPI-M.
The Congress high command in Delhi has already ordered both Chief Minister Rajasekhar Reddy and state party unit head K Keshava Rao to carry its partners along. Why are there such misgiving in 10, Janpath about events in Khammam and Nalgonda?
There is absolutely no danger to the Rajasekhar Reddy ministry. The Congress has an unassailable majority in the Andhra Pradesh assembly, with 191 MLAs in a House of 294, where the CPI-M has but nine.
However, the Congress is utterly dependent on the Marxists in Parliament. The Communists used that leverage in the recent assembly elections in Kerala, with Prakash Karat musing out in public over withdrawing support. Now, the Congress fears, the CPI-M is trying to throw its weight around even outside West Bengal and Kerala.
The brouhaha in Andhra Pradesh must not be seen in isolation. Even as Prakash Karat was hobnobbing with Chandrababu Naidu, his colleague Sitaram Yechury was raising the flag of a Third Front, to enthusiastic applause from the Samajwadi Party. So, will we see a return of the old Third Front, in which, please remember, the likes of Chandrababu Naidu and Mulayam Singh Yadav were leading lights?
The arithmetic of the 14th Lok Sabha does not support Sitaram Yechury. The Lok Sabha web site lists 146 Congress MPs and 128 BJP MPs. That adds up to 274, just over the halfway mark. A Third Front, by definition, cannot include anyone from either of the two largest parties. Where then does the Third Front get the numbers?
Sitaram Yechury's proposed Third Front must remain a phantom unless one of three possibilities gives it substance. The first option is to engineer splits in either the BJP or the Congress. The second is to bully the Congress into offering support from outside as that party did in 1996. The third is to win a popular mandate in a general election. Is any of these scenarios likely?
Breaking the BJP or the Congress will not be easy given the Anti-Defection Law. In any case, I doubt a BJP or Congress MP will join something as fragile as a Third Front made up of thirty outfits.
Can the Congress be persuaded to offer support from outside? Once again, I doubt it. The Congress' institutional memory has kept the 1996-1998 period vivid. Even those ambitious Congressmen who want to unseat poor Manmohan Singh would prefer a Congress-led ministry rather than play the role of a Sitaram Kesri.
That leaves only one viable route to a Third Front, namely elections. I suppose there is a distant possibility that some in the Left Front might be tempted by the possibility, given that the timing could not be better.
Think about it, the Congress's unpopularity is rising thanks to the rise in prices (not just in fuel, but of commodities in general). There is a genuine Muslim backlash thanks to the supposed pro-American policies. There is no fear of any anti-incumbency backlash in places such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu just yet.
Uttar Pradesh, the largest prize of them all, is going to the polls anyway at some point in the next twelve months, and those assembly elections will see more friction between the Congress and a Samajwadi Party that the CPI-M supports. And the BJP is in such spectacular disarray that the Third Front can definitely gain at its expense.
Will those factors be as potent three years down the line? The effect of the fuel price hikes might have been forgotten. Anti-incumbency may take its toll in Tamil Nadu and Kerala (which, along with Pondicherry, elect 60 MPs to the Lok Sabha.) So, from the perspective of the potential Third Front, this is as good a time as any to pull down the Congress.
But that still begs the question of whether the Third Front partners in general -- and the CPI-M in particular -- has the guts to go in for a general election. Tweaking the Congress' nose in local body polls in Andhra Pradesh is one thing, but a full-blown revolt is another altogether.
And, for all of Sitaram Yechury's much publicised remarks on a Third Front, I really do not see the CPI-M gambling on a general election just now.
So, is the Manmohan Singh ministry safe? Well, up to a point. A ministry that stands on the lukewarm support of the CPI-M will never be particularly sure of itself. But for now I really do not see any option for India but that the Manmohan Singh administration muddles along as best as it can. And remembering the chaos of 1996-1998 that is just as well!