Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Loser's Front

By Swapan Dasgupta

The term “Third Front” has been so discredited and arouses so much fear among those who have a stake in the future of India that even its most avowed protagonists are loath to use it in a public forum.

Nevertheless, in the run-up to every election since 1998, some variant of the Third Front usually emerges and equally abruptly disappears after counting day.

In 1998, it was the United Front that fought the general election with I.K. Gujral as the incumbent Prime Minister. Yet, immediately after the votes were counted, its convenor N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party broke ranks and extended “outside” support to a government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee.

In 1999 and 2004, there was no meaningful attempt to forge a third alternative. At best, it was the Left Front, with strong bases in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, that sought localised alliances with either the Samajwadi Party and even the Congress to replenish its numbers. In 2009, having won the state Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati thrust herself as the leader of the third path. And although the Left Front made noises about being half in sympathy and half sceptical of her candidature, the fear of a maverick regime assuming charge in Delhi proved sufficient for a significant section of the electorate to support the Congress pitch for stable continuity.

In the past week, a Third Front of sorts has once again made a reappearance. It began with a beleaguered Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, himself pushed into a possible third place in his home state, trying to give some substance to his national positioning. He found two immediate supporters in the Janata Dal (Secular) of H.D. Deve Gowda and, more important, in Mulayam Singh Yadav who is also fearful of being squeezed by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party and a vengeful BSP. From all accounts, the core of the Third Front could just as well be dubbed the Loser’s Front.

Arguably, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s electoral understanding with the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tamil Nadu has given a fillip to the idea that Narendra Modi can yet be deprived of his possible occupancy of Race Course Road if everyone else, from the Congress to the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, joins hands. There are expectations that the YSR Congress’ Jaganmohan Reddy, who has kept alive his connections with Ms Jayalalithaa, will join and give the notion of a Federal Front some real meaning.
In itself, a grand anti-Modi alliance is an idea that appeals to the minusculity that believes that zero growth and transformation of the Indian dream into a nightmare is an acceptable consequence as long as the man from Gujarat is somehow kept out. It is an idea that, at least in this election, also appeals to a Congress that believes its only hope lies in making the 2014 election a curtain raiser to another election in some 18 months time. The Congress, after all, is not fighting the 2014 election to win; its best hope is to prevent Mr Modi from winning.

Needless to say, the idea that everyone can join hands to roll back the Modi tide is fraught with imponderables. Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamul Congress is likely to do extremely well in West Bengal, is not attracted by the idea of having any direct or indirect association with the Left. Nor for that matter does Ms Mayawati like to consider supping at the same table as Mr Yadav.

True, these are not insurmountable problems. Ms Banerjee’s party was in the United Progressive Alliance-2 government at a time it was supported by the Left. And the BSP and SP did together provide critical support to the UPA, although cynics would suggest that this management of contradictions had more to do with the Central Bureau of Investigation than the Congress’ political managers. As the V.P. Singh government clearly demonstrated between 1989 and 1990, it is possible to even have the Left and the BJP on the same table if the situation so warrants.

The question is: what will warrant a replay of the unhappy 1989 and 1996 experiments?
The answer is relatively simple: the numbers will dictate the final strategy. If the BJP performs below expectations — that is if the combined National Democratic Alliance tally stops below 200 —Mr Modi can say goodbye to any hope of becoming Prime Minister in 2014. He will either have to eschew national politics or, like Rahul Gandhi, hope for better luck next time. If the opinion polls are any indication, this is an unlikely possibility. A combination of the poll arithmetic and public meeting chemistry suggests that Mr Modi has been quite successful in transforming the Lok Sabha election into a presidential contest. But he still has a few laps to go. In particular, Mr Modi has to ensure that he is able to transform the support for him into a vote for the BJP in eastern and southern India.
The BJP suffers from an over-dependence on Mr Modi in places where it does not have strong chief ministers. The other so-called national leaders of the BJP don’t have the clout or the necessary appeal to complement Mr Modi. And, to make matters worse, the BJP organisation has been in a state of disrepair, except in the states where it is in power.
Yet, Mr Modi is fortunate that he has been successful in transforming his personal appeal into an idea. Mr Modi today represents something tangible: the yearning for decisiveness, high growth and, not the least, anti-Congressism. The first two attributes have no other challengers. However, he has competitors in the anti-Congress space.

Whether India succumbs to another Third Front muddle or experiences a 60-month respite from over-politicisation and dodgy governance will depend on whether all the three elements of the Modi appeal coalesce with the one issue that will matter more and more as voting day approaches: a yearning for stability. Before the numbers game begins, this election will be fought in the mind of India.

Asian Age, February 7, 2014

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