Much hyped Third Front offers more bark than bite

Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
18 March 2009

Last week, Indian politics saw the attempt to create an anti-Congress and anti-BJP Third Front for the upcoming elections. Ten regional and leftist parties huddled near the southern city of Bangalore to discuss alliances, policy directives and possibly the prime minister's post. The basics

India is a constitutional democracy with two houses of parliament, the directly-elected House of the People or Lok Sabha, and the Council of States or Rajya Sabha, elected by the legislators of each Indian state.

The President is the head of state and appoints the Prime Minister, who governs the country according to the make-up of the Lok Sabha.

The ten parties included, the Janata-Dal (Secular) led by former Prime Minister H. D. Deve Gowda, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Forward Bloc, the Telegu Desam Party, the  AIADMK, the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, the Bahujan Samaj Party (its leader Mayawati was conspicuous by her absence) and the Haryana Janhit Congress. Currently these parties have approximately 90 seats in the Indian Parliament's Lower House. The number is far short of the 272 half-way mark, prompting skepticism from the media and the major national parties.

However, by Sunday 15 March, it became clear that no formal alliance would be entered in to by these ten parties before the elections. Mayawati, leader of the BSP, confirmed at a press conference that all the Third Front parties would contest the elections individually on an anti-UPA, anti-NDA secular platform and consider forming a government together only after the elections.

The Indian Express reported that such an alliance may prove difficult given the numerous, often conflicting agendas each of the regional parties. For instance, while Mayawati (who is hailed as a leader of India's lower castes) promised reservations (positive discrimination) for the upper castes were she to become prime minister, the CPI(M) promised to reverse the course of liberalizing the economy. Considering the fragmented nature of their appeal, The Telegraph called this ambitious effort anything but "the third front",  but rather an open-door platform at best. Competition centres around three major coalitions:

the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dominated by the Congress Party;

the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP);

and the Third Front, an informal group made up of parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP.

The UPA has been in power since 2004.

Vir Sanghvi, editor of The Hindustan Times, felt confident that Indians were not having sleepless nights worrying about the consequences of one of these regional party leaders becoming their next prime minister. He argued that Mayawati, for example, "represents a certain political venality based on nothing more than an ability to leverage caste-based voting" and sheer greed for power and wealth.

Like Sanghvi, Outlook magazine was pessimistic regarding the prospects of the Third Front. While quoting the enthusiastic CPI (M) chief Prakash Karat as saying that "the future of this country does not lie either with the Congress or the BJP. We represent the diversity of India. We want a federal state. We are against the centralization of powers in Delhi," it wondered if anyone was really listening to his call for a strong anti-Congress, anti-BJP coalition.

Meanwhile, Pankaj Vohra at the Hindustan Times offered a more cynical approach to the latest development. As factionalism trumps ideology, he sees no political bloc being able to achieve the required majority. Hence, a "Fourth Front" will emerge post elections in which the BJP and the Congress will be forced to forge alliances with more regional parties. More controversially, he suggests that one of the major parties may have to give up the prime minister's post to an important ally. 

A thorny road ahead for the giants Over 700 million people will vote in the 2009 elections, in what is the world's largest exercise in democracy. Elections will be held in five phases between 16 April and 13 May. The final result is expected to be announced on 16 May.

If the inability of smaller parties to form a sustainable coalition against the national giants (BJP and Congress) seem convoluted, the giants themselves are on no clear ground with regard to the number of candidates they will be fielding or even coherent campaign strategies.

After scrapping with its ally the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh over seat sharing, the Congress is facing a similar crisis in the state of Bihar. Local leaders Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) agreed on a seat-sharing arrangement for the state that would leave their ally the Congress with only three seats to contest in Bihar.

The Indian Express reported that the Congress called this arrangement "not acceptable" while RJD chief Lalu Yadav declared he and Paswan had "strengthened the Congress more than its own workers" and ruled out any secession from the Congress-led UPA. It remains to be seen how the Congress central command will react to being sidelined in the populous state by its allies.

The BJP on the other hand faced trouble from within its organisational ranks. Coming after the exit of NDA partner, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) last week, infighting at the top of the BJP's command is being seen as a stumbling block in the preparations for a nationwide campaign. Reports in The Times of India of a continued cold war between party president Rajnath Singh and chief campaign strategist Arun Jaitley have exposed the cracks in the party's order. Jaitley has refused to attend party meetings until the appointment of a Singh confidante as head of the campaign in northeast India is revoked. The spat is preventing the BJP from announcing its list of candidates for the Lok Sabha polls, hence delaying the launch of a full-scale nationwide campaign.

Developments in the last couple of weeks indicate what are the real determinants of any political outcome in the upcoming national elections. Firstly, smaller regional parties will continue to hold the national parties hostage to their own political ambitions. Secondly, within the larger parties, it seems factionalism and favoritism will take up too much negotiation time, leaving any deliberation of a coherent national agenda an idea whose time seems to never come.

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