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Federal Front: Can it be any different from its predecessors?

June 17, 2013 13:12 IST

Narendra Modi’s elevation in the BJP has given a fillip to the idea of an alternative forum for those who want to counter him for the 2002 Gujarat riots and for those like Nitish Kumar who do not wish to be part of a dispensation which is steered by him, says Saroj Nagi

The onset of the election season often gives rise to speculation about a non-United Progressive Alliance, non-National Democratic Alliance front. It is no different this time, with chief ministers like Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), Naveen Patnaik (Odisha) or Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-United) talking about the need to forge a new non-Congress, non-BJP combine.  

Whether or not such a front finally materialises, there is no doubt that the JD-U’s decision to quit the BJP-led NDA has given a fillip to such a possibility, coming as it does against the backdrop of mounting anti-incumbency against the UPA, the shrinking of the NDA coalition, and the BJP’s decision to give a greater role to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi which could polarise the polity along communal-secular lines ahead of the 2014 general elections.

But the negativities surrounding the earlier non-BJP, non-Congress experiments have made the latest move of its protagonists suspect. Marked by instability, problems of governance, policy paralysis and ego clashes of its myriad leaders, the third front governments of V P Singh (1989-90), Chandra Shekhar (1990-1991), H D Deve Gowda (1996-97) and I K Gujral (1997-98) collapsed within months of coming to power. The total time they spent in office did not even add up to five years that an elected government is supposed to enjoy.

Against this backdrop, can the latest attempt be any different?

Indeed, the moot question is what can the advocates of a new grouping do to make it different for 2014?

Name Game: Federal Front or Federal Progressive Front/Alliance

First, they must find a name for it that gives it a distinct identity.

Interestingly, when the latest proponents began talking of a non-Congress, non-BJP grouping, they spoke of a federal front and tried, as much as possible, not to use the phrase “third front”. And for good reason too.

A third front, by its very nomenclature, recognises the existence of two other fronts which in the current scenario would refer to the United Progressive Alliance, spearheaded by the Congress, and the National Democratic Alliance which is led by the BJP. By talking about a Federal Front, its protagonists hope to accord a separate and distinct identity to the proposed conglomerate.

Such an identity could be reinforced if the Federal Front takes on the name of Federal Progressive Front or Alliance.

Indeed, suggestions to this effect are believed to have been made and they have found favour with the leaders who are pushing for a new grouping. Naveen Patnaik is among those who have found merit in the idea.

The christening of the group as Federal Progressive Front/Alliance is expected to bring several benefits. One, it would allow the FPF/FPA to pitch itself as a pole that is at par with the UPA and the NDA, instead of evoking memories that such a conglomerate can survive only on the political convenience or benevolence of the Congress or the BJP as had happened with the Congress-backed Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and Gujral governments or the Left and BJP propped-up regime of V P Singh.

Two, it would distance the new formation from the National Front and the United Front experiments. It would reduce, if not remove, the negativity attached to the National Front and the United Front regimes which were marked by the mandal-mandir agitations and inept governance. Instead, it would convey the impression that it is the states with their federal inclinations which will guide the national agenda and that regional forces are equal partners and participants in the nation’s development.

A National Charter

Besides choosing a proper name for the new combine, its leaders also need to dispel the impression that a gathering of state-based parties or regional forces does not have a national vision and cannot come out with a cohesive policy or programme. They can do this by coming out with a national charter of governance identifying the issues which have a bearing on the nation and which they can take up should they come to power.

On the face of it, the charge of a lack of a national vision would seem to carry a grain of truth. All the advocates of a separate front are leaders of parties which have influence in their respective states and as chief ministers their prime concern has been state-centric.

Those who could be interested in forming a new front include the Trinamool Congress (West Bengal), Biju Janata Dal (Odisha), Janata Dal-United (Bihar), Samajwadi Party (Uttar Pradesh) and Telugu Desam (Andhra Pradesh). Then there are parties like the AIADMK, the DMK and other smaller groupings in Tamil Nadu waiting to step in and keep their local rivals out of it.

And if it serves their purpose, parties which are presently with the UPA and the NDA, could also sign up as elections come closer. This is because barring a few outfits, the others have no qualms in switching from the UPA to the NDA or vice versa and would happily drop anchor in an alternative forum if it serves their interest and purpose.

Should some of them join hands to set up a new combine, they can lend substance to it by coming out with an agenda defining their views on national issues on which they agree, much like the National Front had done in 1989 or the NDA had done in 1999 to steer the government by highlighting their commonalities and shelving the points on which they differ.

Is the Sum Greater Than the Parts?

But the question here is whether the experience of managing their state by these leaders adds up to the capacity and capability to manage a coalition at the Centre? 

Quite importantly -- and this is where the issue of a national vision and a national agenda also comes in -- the chief ministers pushing for a new front have had some experience at the Centre as prime minister, ministers, parliamentarians or office-bearers of an alliance  unlike the earlier occasions when they were raw to governance.

The current crop of chief ministers and state leaders have the advantage of working at the central level in some form. This includes chieftains like H D Deve Gowda, Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, J Jayalalithaa or Chandrababu Naidu. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who leads the National Conference-Congress government in the border state, has been a minister at the Centre while UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has been an MP.

Their role at the Centre would have shaped their thinking and helped them build a national outlook whether or not they apply it in their role as chief ministers that calls for a slightly different approach.

Over the years, there has been a slight shift in the perception of these leaders about themselves as well. Many of them now believe that they have it in them to take on the rigours of national governance.  Chief ministers like Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik have been re-elected on the strength of their performance and record of governance.

Notwithstanding the warts and shortcomings that their governments still have, their re-election has underlined the popular perception that they can deliver. And if they can deliver at the state level, why can’t they do so at the national level also is the question they and their supporters ask.

Indeed, it is this question -- and the brand of politics that he represents -- that has hoisted Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to the national stage as the BJP’s campaign committee chief and possibly also as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014.

In fact, Modi’s elevation has given a fillip to the idea of an alternative forum for those who want to counter him for the 2002 Gujarat riots and for those like Nitish Kumar who do not wish to be part of a dispensation which is steered by him.

Can the Front do without the support of the BJP, the Congress or the Left?

Clearly not. Just as the BJP or the Congress cannot come to power without the support of regional parties and forces, neither can such a front come into South Block without the backing of either the BJP or the Congress or, for that matter, the Left. The basic difference would lie in the fact that the Congress and the BJP are bigger parties with either a pan-India or part-India presence and are capable of winning a larger tally than any of these parties can, given the fact that they are confined to a small geographical space and have a limited reach. 

The Left too has a limited spread and appeal but its main strength lies in providing an ideological tilt to any non-NDA alliance that it associates with as an outsider supporter.

The growing importance and role of regional forces or region-based parties can be seen from the fact that they rule in around a dozen states. These include key states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal,Tamil Nadu and Bihar which contribute 222 seats to the 545-member Lok Sabha. The Congress is in power in over a dozen states which account for 210 Lok Sabha seats between them. The BJP on its own governs in four states which have 70 parliamentary seats.

Challenges of stability, leadership and rivalries

The call for a new front is, however, marked by several challenges, of which three are of primary importance: it would be an unstable coalition which would, like its predecessors, collapse in the face of its inherent contradictions; each of the leaders in such a combine would be a prime ministerial candidate unwilling to give up space for one person and that there is no one leader who can hold the combine together; and three, the so-called non-UPA, non-NDA combine could itself present two options as evidenced from Mamata Banerjee’s efforts to upstage the Left by floating the proposal of a federal front when it is the Left that has always been pushing for an alternative all these years.   

Insofar as the stability factor is concerned, the prime reason for the instability of such an experiment is when one of the two major parties backing the combine withdraws support for reasons that can range from the serious to the frivolous as had happened with the BJP’s decision to highlight the Ram mandir issue with a rath yatra to counter V P Singh’s decision to unleash the Mandal formula on the country, or the Congress’s move to withdraw support to the United Front government on the Jain Commission report or pull the plug on the Chandra Shekhar government over the alleged spying on their leader.

When the Left withdrew support from the UPA-1 government on the civil nuclear deal with the US, the Manmohan Singh government managed to tide over the crisis of numbers with the help of the Samajwadi Party.

The clash of egos and claim for the prime minister’s post is an equally serious issue, with all the chief ministers aspiring for the post. It is a hurdle that they will have to surmount if the elections throw up a fractured mandate in which the regional players will be called upon to play a critical role. This could make or break the prospect of having an alternative government in power at the Centre.

But there is no doubt that if the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-led NDA cannot form a government on their own post-2014, their second option would be a third front government even if it has a short life span. The proponents would also bank on this possibility, fully aware that the two major formations would rather have them in power than allow their rival to rule the country.

But unlike earlier occasions, the alternative front itself could be a divided house this time. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the Left cannot cohabit in it. Nor can Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, or for that matter J Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. If one section is left out, it could either rally behind the UPA or the NDA or set up yet another front, leading to a splitting of votes.

With Mamata becoming the first to talk about a possible federal front against the backdrop of the Modi-Advani saga, she virtually wrested the initiative from the Left. She reached out to her chief ministerial colleagues in Bihar and Odisha, using their grouse against the Centre’s step-motherly treatment to make a pitch for a joint offensive in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Parties like the Telugu Desam, which are anti-BJP and anti-Congress, enthusiastically took up the refrain, with Naidu declaring that he would join the federal front. He also underlined that he has been part of three of the four non-Congress governments at the Centre.

But RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is eyeing a tie-up with the Congress, dismissed all talk of a third front. The Left, which has been the main driver until recently for a non-Congress, non-BJP combination, too reacted sharply to Mamata’s moves to whisk away what used to be their project. Its leaders derided her moves as “not feasible”.

At the same time, they also began exploring the option of an alternative front. To wean away the JD-U from joining hands with Mamata, the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury met JD-U leader Sharad Yadav and a CPI leader conferred with the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav. Unlike the other non-Congress, non-BJP parties which get together for the sake of power, the Left is for forging an alternative front which has policies and programmes that are alternative to those pursued by the UPA or the NDA.

Clearly, a churning is taking place; it’s a fluid situation in which the regional players could have the final say.

Saroj Nagi is a New Delhi-based political analyst

Saroj Nagi