The response to the formal launch of the so-called Third Front on 12 March in Dobbespet, Karnataka, has been anything but enthusiastic. The last time that a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition came to power at the Centre was in 1996, and the experiment lasted 18 months under two prime ministers—H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.
The lukewarm response stems partly from a sense of déjà vu over the coming together of political parties containing some familiar faces associated with that short-lived political experiment. That’s probably understandable.
Yet, given that the country is still a month away from the first phase of polling, it’s surprising that the Third Front has generated so much apprehension.
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All the more because it is the only political combination in the country exhibiting some momentum; after managing to string together a combination of regional parties, it continues to chip away at the constituents of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
So far, it has been more successful with NDA partners while receiving ambiguous signals from some members of the UPA.
In contrast, the BJP and the Congress come across as listless and at odds with several coalition partners.
This clearly begs the question: does the Third Front have a realistic chance of forming the next government at the Centre?
Theoretically yes, but practically it all depends upon how the two largest national parties, the Congress and the BJP, fare in the elections.
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At the moment, between them, they account for about 50% of the votes polled and nearly half the number of seats in the Lok Sabha. A bad performance by the BJP will completely eliminate the prospects of an NDA government. At the same time, if the Congress underperforms, it will not only set the stage for the break-up of the UPA, but also enhance Third Front chances substantially.
Either way, going by existing voting patterns, it is clear that a Third Front government will require the support—either from within or outside— of the Congress party. It is very unlikely that the Congress party would opt to be inside a government as a junior partner.
At question is the longevity of such a coalition, the basis for the disquiet generated by the Third Front.
At the same time it is important to keep in mind that the political debate has moved forward significantly. After nearly 13 years of back-to-back coalition experiments, this form of governance is now a permanent part of the political lexicon.
Now, the debate is whether a stable coalition can only be led either by the Congress or the BJP—especially after the coalition led by each party completed its full tenure.
Undoubtedly, a stable polity would be key in managing the economic and security risks facing the country. It would, however, be presumptuous to think that this is a select preserve. To put it differently, the concept of a stable coalition is only still evolving.
Political parties are slowly beginning to accept the import of the fractured mandate turned in year after year.
According to Election Commission data, the number of state political parties has grown steadily from 30 in 1996 to about 48 at present. Clearly, national is not out, but regional is definitely in, forcing a rethink. After all, prior to 2004, the Congress would never even have considered a coalition arrangement.
It must be borne in mind that the two coalitions led by the BJP and the Congress were able to run their full course of 60 months each thanks to the political glue that held them together. While the NDA was made up of 13 constituents at the time of its formation in 1998, a number since reduced to eight, the UPA was formed in 2004 with 13 members as well.
In the case of the NDA, the fact was that the BJP held the most number of seats and the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee held the coalition together. In the case of the UPA, it was the outside support extended by the Left parties as well as the behind-the-scene work done by its chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The minute Left parties withdrew support to the coalition and forced the trust vote on 22 July, the UPA was on shaky ground. It had to cut all kinds of unpalatable political deals to save the government. The onset of elections has probably spared it the blushes.
At the same time, it is apparent that a relatively stable political coalition is no guarantee against bad policy.
The security situation has worsened, partly because of the ineptitude of two administrations, most dramatically in the first decade of the millennium. Similarly, the worst slippage in fiscal performance—wherein the government has accumulated an unprecedented amount of debt—has happened during the tenure of the UPA and despite the presence of the most reform-oriented prime minister at the helm.
Ironically, some of the most significant reform efforts were undertaken by a non-BJP, non-Congress dispensation. One obvious example is the dismantling of the administered price regime for petroleum products undertaken by the United Front government. The process of unravelling this measure was begun by the NDA and taken forward by the UPA.
All this is not to make a case for political anarchy at the Centre under the aegis of some politically headstrong regional satrap at the helm. It is just that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. The Indian electorate recognized this long ago. It is time for political parties, too, to acknowledge the fact.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint