Who remembers the Third Front experiment in 1996 (only it was called United Front, then)? Who remembers the expression khichdi sarkaar (which roughly translates as mishmash government)? And who remembers the embarrassing public spectacle of politicians, many with one foot in the grave, stabbing each other in the back in their desperation to become prime minister in 1977?
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Many of these old images have come rushing back as I read reports of a yet another Third Front. Don’t get me wrong. I believe every Indian has the right to dream about leading the country. But having seen so many experiments with Third Front-type formations—you can call them Janata Party, United Front, whatever—fall flat, I have my reservations about this one.
First, if you believe that history repeats itself, then you have reason to be afraid. This country will always hold a debt of gratitude to the first non-Congress party government in 1977 for restoring democracy. But the Janata experiment unravelled so fast and so furiously (Charan Singh bailed out on Morarji Desai only to be taken for a ride by Indira Gandhi) that it would take another 12 years before the electorate would bring itself to trust a similar formation again.
Ironically, the problems that plagued the Janata Party in 1977 continue to plague the Third Front in 2009 and this brings me to the second problem with this sort of grouping: Who should head it?
In 1977, it was a toss-up between Desai, Charan Singh, Jagjivan Ram, and even Atal Bihari Vajpayee (he ended up as external affairs minister). In 2009, the claimants include Sharad Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu, Mayawati, even J. Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik. In 1989, Chandra Shekhar was convinced that he rather than V.P. Singh was the man for the job. Devi Lal led him to believe that he (Lal) and not V.P. Singh was going to be the prime minister and then tricked him at the last minute. Chandra Shekhar eventually became prime minister for a brief period before his government collapsed just as fast.
And don’t forget, in 1996 H.D. Deve Gowda got the job only because he was the least unacceptable candidate. Some 10 months later, it was over for Gowda—he had fallen foul of Sitaram Kesri who was then heading the Congress party, which had been lending outside support to the United Front government.
Kesri wanted desperately to become prime minister himself, but the United Front picked a replacement in Inder Kumar Gujral, a man nobody could possibly object to.
This pathetic political ping pong continues because individual egos and ambitions are hard to contain. Worse—and this is the third problem—there are no permanent allies or enemies in this style of politics; it’s all about winning.
Who remembers that Naidu (later to become one of the pillars of the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA) refused to support the 13-day Vajpayee government in 1996? Remember that Jayalalithaa ran off to have tea with Sonia Gandhi when the second Vajpayee government stopped pandering to her demands. And it was Mayawati who brought the Vajpayee government down by one vote in order to avenge a state-level coalition gone wrong. Who would have imagined that the Samajwadi Party would rescue the Congress when the Left withdrew support over the US nuclear deal? After all, wasn’t it the same party that led Sonia Gandhi to believe she had 272 members of Parliament and, therefore, the right to stake a claim?
Power vs ideology
When power is the agenda, ideology takes a back seat. In 1989, for instance, the Janata Party formed the government with 141 seats, fewer than the Congress’ 192. Even more bizarre, the government was propped up by support from both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left.
This brings me to the fourth troubling aspect of khichdi sarkaars. Are you as the voter being short-changed when leadership issues and alliances are decided after the elections? Isn’t post-poll mathematics more about horse trading and less about democracy?
I certainly want to know in advance where the party I am voting for stands in the various alliances (pro-BJP, pro-Congress) and who the alliance leader is (and, therefore, what kind of prime minister I am voting for). Yet, you have leaders such as Mayawati declare that they will take sides (BJP, Congress or Third Front) only after the results come in. And don’t for a moment imagine that the BJP and the Congress won’t be fishing for as many supporters even as the results are announced.
As things stand (and they could well change by the time the first vote is cast), the electorate faces a choice between the NDA headed by the BJP, a United Progressive Alliance headed by the Congress and a loose conglomeration of disparate parties with no clear leader and no clear agenda.
Where does the Third Front stand on foreign policy or on key economic issues such as privatization? Your guess is as good as mine, considering we don’t even know who its members are yet.
In the days to come, those answers will get clearer. In the meantime, are you really getting the government you voted for? That answer should be apparent by now.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to email@example.com