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Can the Third Front become a reality?

In recent times, before every general election, some regional party (or parties) throws up the idea of a Third Front all over again, excluding both the BJP and the Congress.  In the past week, two chief ministers - West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee and Odisha's Naveen Patnaik - have once more done so.

   Mamata Banerjee (L) and Naveen Patnaik in a file photo Mamata Banerjee (L) and Naveen Patnaik in a file photo
Sebastian P.T.
Sebastian P.T.
In recent times, before every general election, some regional party (or parties) throws up the idea of a Third Front all over again, excluding both the BJP and the Congress.  In the past week, two chief ministers - West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee, who heads the Trinamool Congress, and Odisha's Naveen Patnaik, chief of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) - have once more done so. Is such a front possible?

A recent opinion poll by Headlines Today-CVoter said both the Congress and the BJP could lose a substantial number of seats in the next general election in 2014. A lion's share of these, it said, would be cornered by smaller parties. This alternative front could bag as many as 68 more seats than the parties comprising making up the front currently have. But the opinion poll added a caveat: if Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was projected as the prime ministerial candidate, he would be such a polarising figure that both the BJP and the Congress would make gains instead of losses. It follows that the smaller parties will see their tally shrink.

While the BJP is seemingly enthused by Modi's elevation as head of the BJP's election campaign committee, the Congress is quietly confident of the Food Security legislation and the direct cash transfer acting as vote-catchers and help it score a hat trick. Thus both the leading national parties are at the moment confident of increasing their tally. So, is the talk of a Third Front merely a survival tactic by these smaller parties? Do they fear they will lose out if they don't emphasise their separate identity? Or, is this a wait-and-watch strategy so that once the general election results are clear they can join the winner?

Talk of a re-emergence of the Third Front was on before the 2009 elections too, but started evaporating even before the results flowed in. CPI(M) chief Prakash Karat, who tried to cobble up a third alternative but then had to eat crow, seems to have completely given up on the idea this time. Karat now terms regional parties as "opportunists" and says they will either side with the Congress or the BJP. Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which was earlier part of the NDA, too was one of the parties he named. This may well be the political reality.

At the moment, there are very few parties that are genuinely not aligned to either the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The two main players from Uttar Pradesh - Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh and Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati, both of whom have prime ministerial ambitions - lend outside support to the UPA government. While Singh talks about a third political formation every now and then, Mayawati is yet to reveal her cards. No doubt, if Modi decides to contest from UP, it could change the political dynamics for these two parties. It has also to be seen whether the Janata Dal (United) will go to the extent of severing ties with the BJP if Modi is projected as Prime Minister. Banerjee though has been trying to gauge the mood and has apparently been in talks with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Jharkhand's Babulal Marandi, apart from Patnaik on the formation of a 'federal front'.

There is little reason for any UPA ally to move out too. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, whose prime ministerial ambitions is no secret and who has friends across the political spectrum, also rules out the scope for a third alternative.

Though the Trinamool and DMK have left the UPA, others will be wary of ditching the Congress, at least before the general election results are out. In 2009, Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad along with Loktantrik Janata Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan assumed that the chances of a UPA repeat was bleak and put their bets on the formation of a Third Front government. The two struck a seat sharing arrangement and did not want one with the Congress. In fact, they went on take potshots at the Congress during the election campaign. They had to pay severely for their folly. Both Prasad and Paswan, who got a severe drubbing at the polls, are out of the government though they have desperately clung on to the UPA bandwagon. Other allies fear the same fate.

Finally, even if a scenario emerges where a Third Front government could be formed, it would be a difficult proposition without the support of either the Congress or the BJP. At least, this is what the last three decades have shown. The V.P. Singh government had the outside support of the BJP, among other parties; the Chandrashekhar, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral governments had the outside support of the Congress. In a house of 543 elected members, the two major national parties may together pile up around 300 seats at least. Patnaik's concept of equidistance from both the BJP and the Congress, in a scenario where there is a chance to form a government, will not be a practical idea then. Besides Banerjee has already indicated she's open to an alliance with the Congress, if the latter comes up with an offer first.  So, is the Third Front idea just another bargaining tool?