The unprecedented rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since the 2014 general elections and its incessant electoral successes across various states ushered in a momentous phase in Indian politics. Even more significant is the precipitous decline of the grand old party of India, the Indian National Congress (INC), which experienced a terrible defeat in 2014 and now holds power in just three states. With the Congress beleaguered, India’s regional parties are finding the idea of a Third Front to be a necessity to arrest the existential threat that they face from the BJP’s invincible political machine. There has never been a more opportune and compelling moment for seriously forging a national Third Front than now, as presently, the regional parties have been rendered helpless with the onslaught of the BJP juggernaut and the insurmountable predicament of the other national alternative, Congress.
The Perpetual Impediments to a Third Force
History is replete with instances in which a plethora of regional parties, along with the left parties, have enthusiastically touted the idea of forging an alternative to Congress and the BJP at the national level. Reports of numerous leaders of regional outfits exhibiting unusual bonhomie with each other and holding frequent parleys to reach a political common ground,have become a familiar spectacle in the Indian political firmament ahead of every national election. But the outcome of such grandiose gestures has been less than impressive.
Experiments with National Front and United Front government have been tremendously discouraging; there has never been a successful, stable third alternative. The abortive nature of the idea of a Third Front can be attributed to two main factors. First, when either of the two dominant national parties wins the highest number of seats, but falls short of a majority in the Lok Sabha, it will clamor to gain support from regional satraps in order to form a government. Such an eventuality compels the regional parties to extend support to national parties and join national coalitions because that guarantees immediate access to national political power and massive influence over New Delhi. Second, the abysmal lack of consensus among the regional outfits on the terms of power sharing and major policy issues makes the idea of a Third Front a fantasy. Instead, joining a coalition led by one of the national parties — choosing to bandwagon with the ruling bloc over balancing against it — assures more convenient and stable channel to the national power corridor for the regional leaders over a third alternative.
Renewed Possibility for the Third Alternative
But the volatile architecture of Indian politics makes the formation of a third alternative in the 2019 general elections not only feasible but in many ways an imperative for the political health of regional forces. There are four factors behind this.
First, the BJP has demonstrated an aggressive drive to wrest power for itself in each and every state. The BJP has transformed itself into an unrelenting, unyielding, and tremendously ambitious election machine, which tirelessly works to expand its spread throughout India under its committed and persistent president, Amit Shah. The BJP has also blatantly deployed unscrupulous tactics of political maneuvering and hoodwinking in Goa and Manipur in order to install its own government in those states, despite not emerging as the largest party in either case. These trends are unmistakably indicative of the BJP’s unswerving commitment to conquer the whole of India.
These developments have tremendously unnerved the regional parties, in an unprecedented manner. Unlike the BJP, the Congress, whether in its recent past or even the heyday of its glory, never aspired to supplant the regional parties and grab power in every potential state. Partly due to its own largely weakened organizational capacity and partly due to its lackadaisical demeanor, the Congress chose to share power with regional parties in some states or simply let them be on their own. For instance, in the near past the Congress never made any concerted effort to conquer Tripura from the Communists or Uttar Pradesh from its regional ruling parties. But the BJP, under the auspices of the Modi-Shah duo, will not rest until they are successfully placed in all the states.
In the face of such an unassailable political hegemon, the regional parties face an existential crisis over their political survival. This would expedite the need for a Third Front like never before. Keeping in mind the timeless saying, that one should never underestimate a politician’s need to survive, the Third Front, at this moment, is the indispensable need for the political survival of regional parties.
Second, the abject political destitution of the Congress party, which is in the worst condition since independence, has nearly erased the only other national alternative that the regional parties could cling on to. Moreover, a deluge of controversies regarding financial misappropriation and ineffective leadership in the final years of the Congress’ rule have further tarnished the appeal of the Congress party before the regional parties. Worse still, the exit of Sonia Gandhi, often regarded as the “great unifier,” from the helm of party affairs created a leadership vacuum and skepticism amongst the regional leaders who have expressed unambiguous reservations regarding the idea of Rahul Gandhi as the face of an anti-Modi coalition. This further strengthens the need for the regional parties to weave a coalition without the Congress, as it ceases to be the political linchpin it used to be.
Third, the patronizing behavior of an ascendant BJP is creating serious cracks in the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP is not willing to hear out its own regional allies, and is increasingly antagonizing the parties which were well placed in the BJP camp. With the BJP’s emphatic victories in one state after another, it has become a powerful and arrogant ruling party that is naturally distasteful to its disgruntled allies. Recently, K. Chandrashekhar Rao, the powerful chief minister of Telangana who was known for his proximity with the BJP, is surprisingly repositioning himself as a Third Front enthusiast. The disillusionment of regional parties like TDP, Shiv Sena, and others with the BJP is further reinforcing the idea of merging together against the BJP in order to safeguard not only the regional clout of these parties but also their regional interests.
Fourth, the political maturation of the regional leaders is also a striking development hitherto not seen in Indian politics. The conciliation between bitter rivals like SP-BSP or JD (U)-RJD (though Nitish Kumar switched sides later) is not a usual development and speaks volumes about the political pragmatism of the regional leaders to dismiss their petty differences to beat the greater rival in the room. The newfound confidence of the regional leaders to perceive a national role for themselves without riding on the back of national party is also noteworthy.
Its not usual to see, an otherwise impetuous Mamata Banerjee spearheading negotiations for a national alternative in her own right or an usually inward-looking regionalist like Rao reinforcing Banerjee’s idea of a federal front with overbearing enthusiasm. This undoubtedly heralds a perfect moment of beckoning for a Third Front to materialize after years of vacillation and trepidation.
The Formula for a Successful Third Front
Current conditions provide an ideal breeding ground for the Third Front to nourish itself like never before. But for the idea to finally actualize, extraordinary political sagacity and astuteness has to be displayed by the regional constituents. Local leaders must check the power tussles, ego clashes, and internecine conflicts, which have repeatedly debilitated the success of the third alternative in the past.
If the idea of the third alternative is to catapult into reality, its leaders need to carve out a clear political narrative and policy framework for leading the nation that should not only be markedly distinctive from the Congress and BJP narratives, but also visibly promising in its articulation. It has to move beyond its negative connotation as a mere non-Congress, non-BJP electoral front that is nothing more than a motley assemblage of ambitious regional leaders. The front must do everything in its capacity to channel the discontent and despondency of the people with the Congress’s and BJP’s malfeasance. Pressing issues like unemployment, rising prices, the disastrous implementation of demonetization, growing violence against minorities and dalits, reports of fiscal misappropriation, and the onslaught on federal structures can be effectively enunciated as significant electoral agendas to galvanize popular support.
But the decisive factor for the fate of the Third Front will be mature understanding and cooperation amongst the third front leaders. Perennially contentious issues like pre-election seat sharing along with cadre management and postelection power sharing must be handled with great tact and equanimity. Most importantly, the Third Front constituents must give up their infectious affinity for the top job and consensually agree upon a credible leader with impeccable national standing and unflinching acceptability to lead them with indomitable confidence.
Only a credible combination of reliable and promising leadership of the Third Front can pull the people away from an aggressive BJP and diffident Congress. A renewed upsurge of the regional parties in the national politics, in the form of the Third Front, would reinvigorate India’s multiparty system and true federal spirit.
Ambar Kumar Ghosh is presently serving as Guest Faculty at the Department of Political Science, Siliguri College, West Bengal, India