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January 23, 1998


T V R Shenoy

Divided before the poll, united afterwards, that is the United Front in a nutshell

"Tell us, Mr Gandhi," a British journalist drawled patronisingly, "what do you think of Western civilisation?"

"I think it is an absolutely marvelous idea," the Mahatma replied impishly, "When do you propose to start?" (The media, even in those days, could try the patience of a saint!)

When my friends ask me what I make of the United Front's chances in the coming poll, I can only echo Bapu. Where is the United Front? In fact, what is the United Front?

The United Front is something that didn't exist prior to May 1996, that is up to the time the results were declared after the last general election. And I am very much afraid that this hastily-knitted outfit is unravelling before a single vote is cast in this general election.

Let us start with the Janata Dal, the core of the United Front. It is falling to pieces before our very eyes. It won 46 seats in 1996. (Incidentally, it got over 50 in 1991!) Eighteen months later only 27 Lok Sabha MPs are left, with the rest going to the true national parities.

Inder Kumar Gujral (not a sitting Lok Sabha MP) is contesting from Jalandar with the aid of the Akali Dal, a 'communal' party allied to the BJP. Naveen Patnaik and Dilip Ray have walked off with most of the Orissa unit to form the Biju Janata Dal -- and an eventual alliance with the BJP. And in Karnataka, home to a former prime minister, three ministers have joined Ramakrishna Hegde, who had previously chosen to throw in his lot with the BJP.

So much for all the fancy theories about 'political untouchability'! But wait, the United Front wasn't just a non-BJP unit, it was also a non-Congress formation.

But Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Janata Dal president in 1996, has led his Rashtriya Janata Dal into an alliance with the Congress. And former Union textiles minister R L Jalappa, disdaining such half measures, has openly joined the Congress.

It is well known that politicians try to be all things to all people. But I have never heard of a single party trying to join three different fronts simultaneously! However, I am glad to note that a rump of the Janata Dal is still in the United Front. Or, to be precise, whatever is left of the United Front.

There doesn't seem to be anything terribly 'united' about their activities in, say, Uttar Pradesh. In the recent election to the UP Vidhan Sabha, the Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party fought separately. But Mulayam Singh Yadav is making sure that this won't happen again -- he is splitting the Janata Dal and luring its members into his own party.

With friends like Yadav, the Janata Dal doesn't need enemies! But the Samajwadi Party is fully prepared to kick its allies in the teeth in other states too. In Maharashtra, for instance, he is in an informal alliance with the Congress.

The claim to be an anti-BJP, anti-Congress outfit was the bedrock on which the United Front was formed. But this isn't the only principle that has been thrown to the winds.

Laloo Prasad Yadav was jettisoned by his former friends because of his involvement in the fodder scam. But he wasn't the only one charged in that crime, so too was Jagannath Mishra for instance. Yet the United Front has cheerfully accepted Mishra as an electoral ally in Bihar. And why hasn't Mishra joined the Untied Front proper?

I found a remark made by the CPI's A B Bardhan very illuminating. Mishra couldn't join the United Front, this veteran Leftist said, because the constituents had decided that they wouldn't accept any new members until after the poll. Not because Mishra faces corruption charges, please note, but simply because of a purely procedural hitch!

Do you think the Communists agree with Chidambaram's management of the economy? Does Sharad Yadav agree on the principle of reservation for women? The DMK wants Article 356 scrapped, but Mulayam Singh Yadav wants to apply it in Lucknow. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

So what makes it a 'United' Front? Only one thing -- the lust for power. Divided before the polls, united afterwards, that is the United Front in a nutshell.

T V R Shenoy

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