Alarmism on the prospects of a third front will only constrain our options
The idea of a third front may not be a coherent political project. But its shadowy presence is a reminder that there is an underlying yearning to break through the limited choices offered by national parties. The Congress has perfected the art of converting the there is no alternative argument to a form of hubris and blackmail. It has induced such a profound myopia and arrogance in the party that even Congress supporters chafe at the thought of having no options. It may not always be irrational to succumb to blackmail,but we will be diminished if we dont punish it for its follies. The BJP does not,at present,offer a reassuring alternative. The party has four structures pulling in different directions: an obdurate RSS that still cannot overcome its past,several competent chief ministers whose ability to work together is yet to be tested,a feckless central leadership that has no grassroots appeal or track record of statesmanship,and Narendra Modi,trying to create a presidential style of legitimacy in a federalised parliamentary system. It is in a race with the Congress over the same things: indecisiveness,corruption,decimation of institutions and a
sense of entitlement. The competition in the democratic system is like so many things in India,both intense and illusory at the same time.
The barriers to opening up this system are immense. Both parties have a collusive stranglehold on the Centre. Other institutional innovations have allowed oligarchs to go unchallenged even more. In retrospect,the anti-defection law effectively killed Parliament,by making it a handmaiden of the party system,and it deprived those voices within the party that might want change from possessing any bargaining levers. Other laws also make political change harder. The nature of election finance is a serious entry barrier. But a host of contrivances give a huge advantage to entrenched power structures: the fact that in our zeal to curb expenses we made campaign times short may have the unintended consequence of making it harder for newcomers to introduce themselves to a constituency. We have choices,but the menu is already constrained.
So many citizens have started exercising their choice based on the experience of their state government. A few months is a long time in Indian politics. But the way numbers are currently lining up points to a more fractured mandate. The possibility of an even more fractured mandate,with a rag-tag coalition supported from the outside,sets off alarm bells among Indias ruling classes. Whether a third front is a viable idea or not is debatable; but alarmism over the prospects of one will serve only to constrain our options.
The very idea has become necessary in the current context to ensure that the national parties sense of entitlement is punctured. There are fears that a third front might be unstable. It will most likely be. But then,sometimes,even a brief opening by an alternative empowers new constituencies,forces major parties to rethink their positions and produces new alignments. This has happened every time in the past. And sometimes an ordered instability can be more productive than a comatose stability. It is said that a third front leadership is unlikely to have a national perspective. But the cringingly desperate way in which the leadership of the national parties have put their own survival above any principle makes you wonder what the charge of not having a national perspective is all about. The third front will make foreign policy hostage to regional interests. In a way,it already is. But the source of the problem is deeper. Even a supposedly national party like the BJP cannot get its act together on the enclaves agreement with Bangladesh. Why blame regional parties? The third front will be fiscally irresponsible. It is a risk,but no more than a risk with any political party. The Congress squandered the best of economic opportunities in a fiscally irresponsible way. It is something of an irony that the only Chid-ambaram budget described as a dream budget came under Deve Gowda. And many states have shown innovation in a kind of pro-business entrepreneurial capitalism and in social sector schemes. Many of the regional leaders who would make up the third front are autocrats. Indeed,many of them are. But that autocracy is more visible because the national parties can use the state structure in a very sophisticated way to further their ends. But they are articulate and engage with their constituents. In short,the constituents of the third front are as much India and Indian interests as anyone else.
On the flip side,the regional parties are raising profound issues. You may disagree with Jayalalithaas views on subsidies. But her magnificent letter of April 27 to the prime minister raises pertinent issues. It reminded us that states,while no panacea,have been ahead of the Centre in innovation. It reminded us that we are in a governance crisis in part because authority,responsibility and accountability have been divorced from each other. And her plea to not reduce states to vassals in the structure of governance is spot on. This tendency has been exacerbated deeply by the Congresss centralising zeal. In some ways,the real battle for governance in India is not left-right as much as it is federalist versus anti-federalist,and this is as coherent a line on which to argue as any. Having a coalition of chief ministers take a few fundamental decisions on these matters may not be a bad thing. The Congresss weakness has been that it is divorced from the concerns of the states. The BJP could put up a collective leadership based on chief ministers,but the structure of the party militates against that. Having India ruled,even if briefly,by a collection of chief ministers who are articulate and connected should not be such a dismal prospect.
There is a joke going around that the UPA can give inclusion and corruption but not growth; BJP can give growth and corruption but not inclusion. There are models where you briefly get growth and inclusion without corruption,but because there is little corruption,they prove shortlived. Only the Tamil Nadu model can improbably reconcile all three. This is not meant to be an endorsement of a third front or any leader. It is only to say that the self- serving mythologies of the national parties,and the alarmist prognostications of entrenched elites in Delhi,should not constrain us in the choices we exercise. After all,Indian democracy often takes a circuitous route towards its own equilibrium.
The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for The Indian Express firstname.lastname@example.org