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Dual membership could make third front viable

By Shashi Shekhar
March 21, 2012 18:38 IST
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It is not inconceivable that elections in India can be fought by a party maintaining a distinct regional identity in state elections while merging to fight on a common symbol in the national elections, says Shashi Shekhar 

The electoral outcome from last week's five assembly elections have, interestingly, triggered more speculation on the revival of a third front than on the likelihood of a mid-term poll. A mid-term poll maybe a slim possibility at this point in time but that slim possibility, however, has not tamped down speculation on a possible third front or, as some would rather call it, a "federal front". Much number-crunching has been doing the rounds on the clout a third front could carry with another grand coming together of regional parties from Bengal to Punjab circling the two coasts.

One can point to at least three reasons for the heightened third front speculation in recent days. First is that Mulayam Singh has freed himself up for a potential job in Delhi. Second, are the dire straits in which both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party find themselves in the largest state in the country, which feeds into the dominant narrative on the growing clout of regional parties. Last is the Delhi punditry's soft corner for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, hence any speculation on a 3rd front finds a natural resonance in a Delhi that nurtures fond hopes of his prime ministerial candidacy.

None of the above reasons, however, indicate a structural shift that would make a third front government any more viable than it was in the late 1980s-1990 during the VP  Singh, Chandra Shekhar era or in the mid-1990s during the Deve Gowda, IK Gujral era.  In fact, one would wonder why any successful regional satrap who today enjoys absolute power in the state capitals would want to suffer the ignominy that befell Deve Gowda. 

Who in their right mind would want to become the Deve Gowda of the 2010s?

The political reality of every regional party that is in power today is that they are all one-man, one-woman shows with neither an institutionalized mechanism for succession nor a culture of tolerance for alternate power centres within the party. With the exception of a Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh and a Prakash Singh Badal in Punjab, both of who are relatively in a better place to bequeath their legacy in the states for a stint at the Centre, the rest of the regional satraps can barely afford to jeopardise their iron grip on affairs in their respective states.

It is conceivable that a Mulayam Singh or a Sharad Pawar may fall for the same temptation that Chandra Shekhar did for a stint in 7 Race Course Road, howsoever short that stint might turn out to be, given the steroid boost to their legacy from such a stint in their twilight years.

But a Mulayam or Pawar's morbid desire for a posthumous legacy can hardly be the reason for either the BJP or the Congress and even Delhi's punditry to cheerlead a Third Front government into power.

In fact, the Congress, which has the distinction of having propped up every third front government to date with the exception of VP Singh's National Front government, ought to be highly circumspect of playing kingmaker in Delhi given its dubious track record. The Congress's natural instincts are at odds with playing kingmaker. Any third front experiment that expects to be propped up by the Congress can be considered to be inherently unstable pending a clinical death.

It is also hard to foresee a scenario where the BJP would willingly prop up a third front government given how regional parties have expanded at its expense over the years.

In fact, the only likely scenario for a third front is a repeat of 1996 when the Congress, the Left and other regional parties went out of their way to thwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee's ascendancy to power. It is conceivable that such a scenario could very well play out with a Narendra Modi-led BJP being isolated by most parties barring all-weather allies like the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal.

Such a scenario may actually be in the BJP's interest just as it played out in 1996 in the case of Vajpayee who made a come-back twice riding on a groundswell of public support against the politics of untouchability. There are many barriers against such a scenario playing out, not the least from within the BJP.

There is, however, a less talked about parallel and it has to do with the original third or rather second front government from the late 1970s. The Janata Party experiment saw multiple regional and supra-regional parties merge their identity in favour of a common national symbol. The Janata experiment first came apart on the issue of dual membership before ultimately falling prey to personality differences.

In this season of federalism it may not be far-fetched to attempt to forge a new federal compact ascribing a new meaning to the idea of dual membership. It is not inconceivable that elections in India can be fought by a party maintaining a distinct regional identity in state elections while merging to fight on a common symbol in the national elections.

Such a truly federal front would be the ideal second front to challenge the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. Such a federal front would make the need for a third or fourth front redundant, perhaps even irrelevant.

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