The electoral alliance of regional parties and the Left Front promises no more than a spoiler to the Congress and the BJP's unilateral hopes.
Twelve years after the fall of the United Front government, which was a coalition of regional parties (the Communist Party of India being the only national party in that government), a similar conglomeration of regional and left parties has forged a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pre-electoral seat sharing arrangement before the 15th Lok Sabha elections.
Broadly termed as the “third front” by observers, the common refrain of the parties in this amorphous alliance, is their anti-Congress and anti-BJP stance. While the Left Front constituents, have a decided alternate agenda vis-a-vis socio-economic and foreign policies, the other parties are part of a coalition that only shares a vision of opposing the two largest national parties, owing to their local political equations. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)- avowedly the party of dalit leadership- has been non-committal about its relationship with this “third front” but has also sounded interested in this alternative to the BJP and the Congress.
The Left Front – primarily restricted to its stronghold states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura -- have played a role in the Centre in the near past, punching above their stated weight worth 60 seats in parliament by utilising the expedient circumstances that made the United Progressive Alliance dependent on the Left for survival in the first four years of government. It's understanding is that a clear left and secular alternative to the communal BJP and the neoliberalism friendly Congress, has to be built programmatically and through popular mobilisation.
Effectively, the left as a cohesive ideological force is fighting winnable battles only in West Bengal and Tripura as the Left Front, in Kerala as the Left Democratic Front and in Bihar as the newly constituted and promising United Left Bloc, which includes the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation. In Kerala, factionalism has severely dented the image of the main left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), while in West Bengal, a series of administrative mishaps has seen an erosion of support even among its rural mainstays. The left therefore expects to shore up its parliamentary strength by stitching up electoral alliances with parties such as the Telugu Desam and others in Andhra Pradesh and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) in Tamil Nadu, where the left parties are relevant as a political force.
While the regional parties are now formally opposed to the Congress led United Progressive Alliance and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, there remains the question whether post-elections, the antagonism would continue. Most parties, such as the Telugu Desam, the ADMK and the Janata Dal (secular) have in the near past been part of the NDA. Their electoral strategy now is governed by the fact that any alliance before elections with the increasingly reactionary and communal BJP would fetch them diminishing and negative returns and some of these parties are in direction opposition to the Congress or other parties in the UPA in their respective states. This precise reason has seen the Biju Janata Dal coming out of a 11 year alliance with the BJP and its dalliances with the “third front”. And the BSP's non-committal attitude is evidence that it is keeping options open after elections.Programmatically, little is different between these parties and the Congress and the BJP, even though they have articulated a regional nationalism and a circulation of elites that has seen greater federalisation and decentralisation of power from the all powerful centre. Structurally, these single leader-driven parties are very similar to the Congress as well.
As currently constituted, the “third front” offers a major electoral impediment to both the UPA and the NDA, as strictly bipolar contests between these two alliances are now restricted to about one third of the total number of states. The “third front” makes it quite difficult for the Congress and the BJP as individual parties to win enough seats so as to dominate a future coalition government. On the other hand, the success of the “third front” in constituting a coalition government on its own is dependent on the both the Congress and the BJP getting much less seats individually than before. While in the years gone by, there indeed has been a drop in the electoral returns of these two parties, it is not expected that the electoral tally of the parties outside the UPA and the NDA would garner more seats than the halfway mark.
Even if the 2009 “third front” experiment does end by an extraordinary set of circumstances in the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP majority/minority government, it would be difficult to expect such a government would base its programmes on a substantial alternative. The experience of the erstwhile and short lived United Front (UF) government in the mid-1990s is enough to suggest this. The UF government, beyond a few noises and moves towards greater federal transfer of power or a more compassionate foreign policy, offered no real change from the neoliberal trajectory of the erstwhile government – it was after all the government, in which the then finance minister P.Chidambaram presented the much discussed neoliberal “dream budget” that contributed so much to a further widening of inequalities.
Indeed, the flux in the polity today as it stands is likely to continue after elections and many of the aforementioned parties can be expected to change their antagonistic pre-electoral positions vis-a-vis the Congress (and the BJP for some parties) if required to construct fresh alliances in government or in opposition. In that sense, the amorphousness of the “third front” precludes the possibility of a strong “third pole”, distinguished and separated from the UPA and the NDA in India's national polity. Unless of course, the alternative is constructed programmatically post-elections or in the long term and gathers critical support for its agenda nationally.
Draft of the Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly