In the last week of February a motley crew of 11 political parties announced the formation of a “third front” to contest seats in India’s upcoming elections. With the polls due by May, the timing of this announcement is unsurprising. The larger political context, however, is: India’s imminent general election is the most important in decades, and the conditions may finally be right for a third front to snatch victory.
On February 25, the third front – comprising seven regional and four left-leaning parties – declared itself an “alternative” to the dominance of India’s two main parties: the incumbent Congress and the opposition BJP. After 10 years in office the Congress-led coalition is likely to suffer an emphatic defeat. The 11-party third front has therefore aligned itself against the BJP, the right-wing opposition party that it fears “represents a dangerous mix [of] aggressive capitalism [and] a rabid form of communal ideology.”
The seeds for this alternative political bloc were sown last October when 14 parties hosted an anti-communal convention in the aftermath of the deadly Muzaffarnagar riots. At the time, suspicion was rife that the get-together marked the first steps of an electoral alliance and these suspicions were confirmed last month when Nitish Kumar arrived in Delhi to rally a “non-Congress and non-BJP front.”
A third front has long been an elusive project, and only once has a non-Congress, non-BJP formation succeeded at the national level. In 1977 Indians voted in the Janata Dal government in protest against the Congress party for Indira’s Gandhi’s declaration of a draconian national emergency. The few other non-Congress and non-BJP governments that came to office since then have either been supported by, or ultimately fell because of, the two main parties.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Indians think Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, should lead India’s next government. But India’s elections are famously unpredictable. The 2004 and 2009 general elections delivered shock Congress victories, and in Delhi last year the ambitions of the two main parties were frustrated by the Aam Admi (Common Man) Party, year-old anti-corruption movement.
The AAP’s denial of a BJP victory in Delhi – and the possibility of the AAP doing the same in other urban centers – means the BJP’s success at the national level cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, despite being the favorite to win Modi and the BJP face a tough challenge. To form a government the BJP will need to win the most seats in parliament and then muscle smaller parties into forming a coalition. Most analysts agree the BJP will need somewhere between 180-220 seats to do this, meaning Modi will have to equal or better the party’s 1998 record of 182.
India has been ruled by coalitions since 1989 and the upcoming election will almost certainly produce another hung parliament. In the current Lok Sabha (lower house) the parties represented by the third front have 92 parliamentary seats. With no major party likely to win an outright majority of 272 and with Congress’s vote-share likely to crumble, if the BJP underperform or fail to woo coalition partners a third front government may just steal a victory.
Coalition building in India has tended to follow a set sequence: all sides wait to see how the electoral cards fall before jostling to forge alliances and form a government. The audacious declaration of a third front, months before the election, suggests that its members have confidence in the front’s prospects. Indeed, the alliance has cast its net far and wide in the search for additional allies. As Nitish Kumar said to reporters, “Parties which do not exist in Parliament but have strength outside Parliament can be members of the bloc.” So far, though, the interactions between the 11 parties have been informal. Without a binding agreement tying the parties together, each has the option of deserting the alliance and returning to the old strategies of jockeying to form a coalition with whichever party looks to lead the next government.
The third front consists of a number of India’s regional big-hitters: Nitish Kumar (chief minister of Bihar), Jayalalitha (chief minister of Tamil Nadu), Naveen Patnaik (chief minister of Odisha) and H.D.D. Gowda, the 11th prime minister of India. The electoral clout of this cross-country formation, however, is unclear: though each enjoys powerful support within their own states, whether their collective vote bases will be sufficient for success at the national level is uncertain.
The third front is a bittersweet prospect. The 11-party front is united by the twin goals of combatting corruption and strengthening secularism. The BJP’s poor record on both issues makes the third front welcome. But beyond being an oppositional force, there is little that holds the third front together. It lacks a coherent ideology and dynamic leadership. Despite reports that the front will produce a joint statement and agree a common minimum program, the business community in particular is concerned about a third front’s ability to drive through the structural reforms needed to revive India’s ailing economy. It is the lack of a clearly articulated plan that has allowed some to dismiss the front as a “failed idea [that’s] objective was and is [only] to unite for power.”
As India prepares for the general election, there is a growing sense of a need for a new kind of politics. The BJP presents itself as a bold development-driven alternative to the neo-socialism of Congress, and the AAP’s anti-establishment ethos resonates with those that have become disillusioned by Indian politics. As a coalition of national and regional parties reflecting India’s federal structure, the third front seems like a radical proposition. But in their emphasis on secularism and combatting corruption, they offer little that the more established political blocs do not already.
Then there is the question of leadership. The third front has dodged the question of which of its many prominent political figures will be named its prime ministerial candidate. This is a canny move in the short term, allowing the front to pool its votes before the election. But once the votes have been cast, will the front survive the many tough decisions it will need to take? The concern is that the front’s support base will fragment when voters from one region reject a prime-ministerial candidate from another.
Of course, all this speculation may be premature. Though the regional parties have grown in influence, their clout is easily overstated. After all, the Congress and BJP still govern two-thirds of India’s states. Instead, the decision to form a third front may just be a crucial pre-election warm-up exercise: with Modi blazing a national campaign trail and with Congress, the BJP and AAP attracting the lion’s share of media attention, the third front provides one way for regional parties to boost their profiles and energize their party cadres.
The poor electoral record of a non-Congress, non-BJP formation has made this latest front an easy target: Modi dismissed the third front as “third rate” and Manish Tewari, a Congress Minister, told the Financial Times the third front is “the most enduring mirage of Indian politics.”
Nonetheless, the politics and arithmetic of coalition building promises to be the story of India’s election. Whatever the prospects of a third front, the large regional parties will still play a crucial king-making role. In the era of coalition politics even a small parliamentary presence of just 10 or 20 seats is enough to tip the balance of power. Thirty-eight parties are currently represented in India’s Lok Sabha, 11 of which have 10 to 20 seats, making them central to the shape and character of India’s soon-to-be-decided 16th government.