Left parties’ alliances with various regional parties in different states in the run up to the 15th Lok Sabha and BSP’s indications to enter into post poll co-operation with the total sum of these alliances once again triggered the debate about necessity and viability of the national political alliance of parties that are not part of either Congress-led or BJP-led coalitions. However, the Left is refraining from terming the present loosely-knitted coalition of non-Congress, non-BJP parties as the Third Front/Alternative even though the effort is pioneered by its leaders. On the other hand, Left’s coalition partners, rest of the political establishment and media have readily labeled the experiment as Third Front.
The term Third Front is rather new terminology in Indian politics although it looks like an old usage. The requirement of third platform began to be felt only after 1991 since the BJP consolidated its position as the second most powerful pole of Indian polity. 1980s and 1990s witnessed regressive developments in Indian politics as the progressive-socialist opposition to Congress’ hegemony withered away, with the exception of the Left parties, giving way to emergence of rabidly right wing forces. Since independence; until the collapse and disintegration of the Janata Party in 1980, the polity was divided into Congress and Anti-Congress platform; the latter being conceptualized by great socialist thinker and leader Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia. The 1977 Janata Party government was put together by Jayprakash Narayan utilizing Lohiya’s concept of anti-Congressism. The Janata Government enjoyed the majority on its own. The 1989 anti-Congress government was result of V.P. Singh’s charismatic leadership of the time that brought together all the socialists under one umbrella. The V.P. Singh government named and popularly called at that time as National Front government. Both these non-Congress regimes were not considered as Third Front governments because of BJP’s relatively (at least in electoral terms) weak position in the Indian politics. While Janata government did not require Left’s support for survival, the V.P. Singh government received outside support from the Left on one hand and BJP on the other hand. The Left’s tactic was to oust the bourgeoisie-landlord Congress from the government and also to keep BJP away from the actual reins of power. The reason for BJP’s non participation in the V.P. Singh government was its dependability on the Left for survival, whereas the erstwhile Jan Sangh had no hesitation in participation in the Janata Party government a decade earlier. The Left did not play crucial role either in the formation of Janata Party in 1977 or Janata Dal-led National Front in 1989. Both these phenomena occurred with its own dynamics without direct interference from the Left.
The Left And The Third Front
Complete disintegration of Indian socialist camp into several fractions in mid-1990s resulted into posing the responsibility of providing secular alternative to the BJP and the Congress on the shoulders of the Left. Constrained by its limited presence nationwide, the Left has since been trying to forge an alliance of regional parties as an alternative to two dominant parties. Thus, the Left cobbled together the United Front after 1996 parliamentary elections as opposed to Congress and BJP. Since then the Left has been at the centre of efforts to form any non-Congress, non-BJP alternative at the centre. Since 1990s, the left parties, particularly the CPM, have time and again insisted upon and attempted to form the ‘Third Alternative’ as opposed to both the Congress and the BJP. The left has also been maintaining that any such political alliance should be firmly based on alternative economic policies to reverse the neo-liberal shift in Indian economy since 1991.
Socio-Political Necessity Of Alternative Platform
The debate about necessity of the Third Front is dominated by two arguments. The opponents of any such experiment are deeply influenced by and confined to the liberal bourgeois democracy as practiced in the United States and the United Kingdom. In each of these advanced capitalist countries the democratic process produced two-party political system. The proponents for replication of it in India conveniently forget that the bi-polar system in either the US or the UK was not constitutionally designed but result of prolonged socio-political processes in those countries. The changes in those societies in the future can lead to fragmentation of political parties; while, the contrary can also happen, wherein, only one party becomes all powerful exerting its political hegemony through democratic process. There are other developed capitalist countries that practice multiple party systems with two or more coalitions in place.
In India, the Left champions need of Third Alternative as there have been hardly any differences between Congress and BJP as far as policies on economy, external affairs and federalism are concerned. Under such situation, according to the Left, change of government does not result in paradigm shift in government policies as it usually happens in the US and the UK. Therefore, the Left aspires to build a policy based alternative to Congress and BJP by aligning with regional parties and any other party willing to share the similar view point. Since parliamentary tactics have acquired very important role in Left’s overall approach to bring in the change in the society, it has to evolve methods to shift the course of centre’s policies according to its own ideological framework. Limited influence of Left on Indian population, which has been restricted to certain pockets in the country, asks for forging broad alliances with some of the political parties. This would help the Left in not only exerting influence in the matters of policy makings but also to keep its ideological agenda very much alive at the national level.
In the Indian context, an alternative platform becomes more essential for the democratic representation of various regional aspirations and social identities. India is at the crossroad as various communities are realizing the deprivations they have suffered and are aspiring for better economic and social status. Both the prominent political parties are politically least accommodative to diversity and aspirations of the deprived. Lack of any alternative platform will only result in exaggerating centrifugal tendencies in different parts and communities within the country. The ever shrinking place of Congress on one hand and BJP’s inability to further expand its base substantially (of course, Karnataka is a major exception) demonstrate that these parties have failed to gain confidence of people in different states and of various communities. Their failure has resulted into fragmentation of polity, while the alternative platform has the potential to bind various political forces together on agreed agenda for governance. The Indian polity has never been static but ever evolving in last 60 years. It has come a way ahead in accepting the coalition governments from the earlier form of single party government. In the same way, it can further evolve in the tri-polar direction. In deed, there are several political formations, strongly backed by social forces, which are not inclined towards Congress or BJP. These forces form backbone of the potential Third Front at the national level.
Non-Congress, Non-BJP Governments In Perspective
It is important to look into experiences from failures of 1977, 1989 and 1996 experiments before embarking on a renewed journey for realization of the Third Front. Earlier the two non-Congress governments came to power around strong personalities like Jayprakash Narayan and V.P. Singh. The political organizations they represented had the national level presence. Moreover, they ride the waves against Congress on issues like emergency and corruption respectively. All these factors were absent in 1996 when the United Front government was put in place. Total disenchantment of electorate with the Narsimha Rao led Congress government sprang up the most diverse result since independence. Unacceptability of BJP’s core political agenda for rest of the political parties created a stage for the formation of United Front government with an outside support from the Congress. Not only that these regimes were of short tenures but also each of these political formations couldn’t sustain after fall of the respective governments. The Janata Party government, even though was in majority, collapsed as a result of ideological contradictions inherent in its formation. On the other hand, the V.P. Singh government and the United Front governments could not complete the term as they never had the majority on their own on the floor of the Lok Sabha. These memories of failures still haunt the political spectrum. The political formations that led these respective governments fell apart each time they lost trust vote in Parliament. This was result of lack of programmatic and tactical understanding among the components as well as the need of political survival, under the given political situation, for many of the political players that hampered continuation of unity among those forces.
Concerns About Third Front’s Viability
In this context, the two foremost questions that arise are whether any eventual Third Front government can complete its full term in the office and whether its components politically remain together even if the government falls. In the present scenario, formation of government at the centre seems to be an impossible task without accommodating the Third Front unless either Congress or BJP rides any wave, which is currently invisible to one and all. Nonetheless, the new formation at the centre will again be of short tenure as a result of hung parliament, which is in the offing. It is merely a tactical question whether to set up a minority Third Front government at the centre. For a matter of fact, staking a claim to form the government will, in deed, help in formulating the policy framework for the Third Front as it will also attract many other potential partners to be part of it or to align with it. On the other hand, it is strategically crucial to devise the ways to consolidate the Third Front’s political mechanism based on alternative policy framework. In this context, everyone who is not aligned to BJP or Congress can not be part of the Third Front even though such forces can be part of the Third Front-led government. As Indian polity has traversed from the days of single party rule to instituting the coalitions under the leadership of any national level party, now it has to further explore the ways to rationalize concept of the government with two or more centre of powers agreed to come together on common minimum programme. In a diverse and developing society like India, the polity can not be static but will keep on changing within the framework of parliamentary democracy unless and until interests of all the sections of the society get represented equitably. In fact, such flexibility ensures survival of and further acceptance of democracy with the people.
Role of BSP
From this perspective, the Left’s alliances with regional parties and other smaller parties have the potential to form the Third Front. At the same time, there should be no illusions about bringing the BSP within the gambit of the Third Front in the near future. The BSP can only be post-electoral partner of the Third Front in its bid to form the anti-BJP, non-Congress government at the centre. In deed, outside such a government and particularly during the elections, the Left and the BSP will continue to vie for the alternative space to Congress and BJP in different states, thus making them competitors until the BSP reaches its saturation point of expansion. The natural question is why BSP should enter in such an understanding with the Left-led Third Front on a long term basis. In the past, BSP has entered with power-sharing arrangement with the BJP thrice, pre-election alliance with the SP once and seat sharing arrangement with the Congress in 1996. None of these adjustments resulted into its long term alliance with any of these political parties as class character of BSP stands out against those of Congress, BJP and SP. BSP’s support base overwhelmingly consists of Dalits, the most backward castes and the poor among the other castes, particularly the Brahmins. On the contrary, BJP’s main support comes from Brahmin and non-Brahmin upper castes, and middle castes that constitute petty bourgeoisie in the U.P. The SP represents the powerful OBCs, Muslims and some of the non-Brahmin upper castes like Rajput. The Muslims are aligned with the SP more to defeat the communal forces than to promote its economic interests. The SP in U.P. and RJD in Bihar have long lost the distinction of being forces of social change representing interests of the poor in the society. The powerful OBC castes in both the states with significant land holding now dominate the organization and politics of these parties. As a result, the Muslims in Bihar had deserted the RJD in last assembly elections to vote for the JD (U) and their counterpart in the U.P. are on the way to switch loyalty to BSP in the similar fashion. The BSP requires post-electoral allies to participate in/lead the government and Third Front is much lucrative option for it than the BJP or the Congress.
To Be Or Not To Be?
The present participants in the Third Front, barring the Left, do not represent coherent ideology or pro-poor policy framework. What is important, however, is that many of them represent the poor and downtrodden masses as well as regional aspirations of the people. In this context, role of the Left becomes crucial in terms of providing ideological leadership to the emerging Third Front. The experiment of United Front failed miserably because of three factors; one, lack of coherent ideology in its common minimum programme; two, lack of nationwide organizational presence (if not electoral) and; three, lack of popular non-corrupt leadership at the helm. The Left attempted to insert certain pro-poor measures in the CMP of the UF government; however, it was not a participant in the government to ensure its sincere implementation. Its absence in the government also resulted in UF lacking national perceptive and certain degree of acceptability. Today, the Left is not novice to nitty-gritty of governance, particularly as a result of its role during the UF government and its concrete interventions in almost all the policy matters of UPA government. It has come far away from being merely critic of everything in the establishment to providing policy alternatives on all the important fronts. Its experiences in running the coalition government, albeit in majority, in three states in the era of liberalization come as handy guide to evolving and implementing pro-poor measures. Left has to lead from the front to set in motion an alternative agenda of governance given the pressing need to provide minimum relief to the poor in this country, to address the long pending issues of regional deprivations, to further isolate the communal forces and to resist US-imperialism in the region.
Participation in the third front government is merely a tactical question which needs consideration from two points of views; one, whether any other non-Congress, non-BJP political party is electorally and ideologically sound to provide leadership to the Third Front government when people are posed to throw up the mandate against both these parties and; two, whether left democratic forces and people at large will gain from such direct intervention. The question becomes primary only in the context of 15th Lok Sabha elections as the Left has other tasks to perform, which will help in enhancing its capacity to intervene also to ideologically strengthen the Third Front. The present efforts to build the Third Front need to be supplemented by consolidating the Left unity in different states like in Bihar. The Left also needs to take up social justice agenda more forcefully linking it to economic policies. There is pressing need to either forge organic links with different people’s movements in the country or evolve different perspective on the issues taken up by these movements. The renewed experiment to install a Third Front government at the centre and a new urge to provide leadership to it will not prove detrimental for the Left in pursuing its larger agenda and increasing sphere of influence in Indian polity and society.