The Third Affront.


Why third fronts happen, and why they shouldn’t.


Considering that juicy permutations of electoral admixtures has the media thrilled with   possibilities as we prepare to face the 15th General Elections, it might be appropriate to remember that the revival of the third front theme is not without numerological mysticism – for if all goes well and the election process concludes on May 28th, we will be within kissing distance of the exact date on which the third front first inflicted us with its mirthful instability –  H.D. Deve Gowda was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the then 13-party United Front on June 1st, in 1996.


Putting regional parties in charge of a complex country like India brings with it – as we have seen in the first two avatars of such leadership – a combination of values that seems to distill the worst elements of each of the coalition partners before it saddles us with a lame duck Prime Ministerial candidate. That the Common Minimum Programme of such regimes are more an agreement for common minimum performance, is another matter of course.


There is, however, no escaping the recurrence of a coalition of coalitionists since, every time we are close to a general election. Yet, despite repeated experiences of the inevitability of its breakdown, it is curious that national parties have not yet devised means to either control, manage or modulate the birth, girth or growth of such destabilizing factors on the body politic, as it were. The inevitable tensions that such arrangements face, result in further dissections until the smaller players first disband, then recoup, regroup and recast themselves as satellites of larger parties once again – the very point from where they began in the first place.


It is clear that the Indian electorate is maturing and finally taking on a more federal tone, refusing to paper over the sheer contradiction of its variety. Even a superficial exploration of the pattern of elections over the years will yield the basis for the progressive shrinkage of popular support to national parties – to the extent that the nomenclature itself is in question, for no party has for some time even held half the country under its belt. The inability of such national players to hold regions or end up ceding space to regional outfits is merely the second coming of Indian democracy. Those who were brought up on the fable of a seamless post independence India must disappoint, but India is no more the one-size-fits-all electorate; and it is not willing to accept that one party fits all, either.


In pure marketing terms, we are witnessing the breaking down of the political market into sub-segments who are looking for specific addressing of their needs. The fragmentation of the Indian polity was almost waiting to happen and visible to anyone willing to see.  In a country where disaffection and anti-incumbency is the flip side of any 5-year term for a government, it has to sooner or later turn to newer, more exotic arrangements if the underlying two-party system refuses to respond to the aspirations of the people.


It is also argued that there is nothing called a national election anymore – that, because eventually only local issues hold fort in Indian elections, a national party is an oxymoron. The data seems to buttress the facts. Except when an ambient issue holds enough potential to breeze through the entire country on the same wavelength, there is now no longer any congruence of issues along national lines. What holds the attention of the voter in Chennai does not in Jammu and ditto for Vidharbha vis-à-vis Poorvanchal. This matrix is going to be the pattern until – and unless – something earth shattering enough were to happen that binds our responses in orchestra. Not until then.


The response of political parties to this frequently established principle is also typically bat-eyed. They have neither invested genuinely in ancillaries, nor established a relationship benchmark with them that can withstand tremors of personality issues or electoral compulsions. There has been only an attempt to befriend or beguile, play a waiting game until the big game swallows the small or a mating dance ritual that is on and off depending on the season. For evidence, we have recent developments where hitherto rock-solid alliances of both mainline parties have come unstuck at a deeply embarrassing time, not to forget the leftist charade of a secular front the last time around. The only real issue for most parties has always been how to tango with a partner party to either cannibalize their territory and vice versa or settle for an uncomfortable bargain in power.


Then there is the intuitive relationship between a small regional party and criminality and corruption within its ranks which vitiates the political space even further. It has been argued that to point out this bias when a whopping thirty percent of the sitting Parliament is constituted of persons with criminal charges is unfair, but there is no denying that what is often a sore point with national parties is de riguer in regional start-ups. The variation in standards of accountability of national parties vis-a-vis the regional players on issues like criminality and corruption is too obvious to ignore. This dichotomy, created in the first instance out of the dependence of larger parties on smaller alliance partners, is not only buying the smaller, regional outfits a legitimacy that is inherently detrimental to probity, but is also establishing lower benchmarks in public life each passing day. Contrasted against this scenario, the painstaking documentation of criminal charges against candidates by well meaning NGOs is now looking more and more like a comic side show to the great Indian election circus.


However, what rankles the electorate most is the sheer audacity of regional satraps who is spite of knowing the realistic impossibility of having a third front last for any substantial time, work towards it as a means of jockeying for either position or power within the system. The abject lack of sincerity in their effort and the clear hypocrisy in their design underlines that it is never a principled alliance based on fundamentals, but a see through stitch-up that masks only personal ambition or short term wheeling dealing or merely a stunt to settle old scores.


Notwithstanding the reasons and the causes for the rise and fall and rise again of such dubious arrangements, it remains a mystery how we, the people, remain powerless as voters to affect the fortunes of such coalitions and must eventually wait out the time it takes them to self-destruct. By which time, of course, precious years would have been lost and another election thrust upon the electorate, paid for by the people of the country. To that extent, should it transfer into reality, maybe the Third Front should really be called the third affront – not only because it remains an affront to real democracy but also because it would be the third time in thirteen years that we’d have to bear this burden, once more.



© Sanjay Kaul 2009

This piece has also appeared in The Daily Pioneer of March 21, 2009 under a modified headline.


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