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The rise of the rest

The UPA government won Tuesday’s trust vote, but ultimately the biggest winner to emerge out of the whole imbroglio may...

Written by Adamziegfeld |
July 25, 2008 11:42:06 pm

The UPA government won Tuesday’s trust vote, but ultimately the biggest winner to emerge out of the whole imbroglio may be Mayawati. A month ago, there were only two real contenders to be India’s prime minister: L.K.

Advani and whomever Sonia Gandhi might tip as the Congress’ nominee. Now there are three. In the event of a BSP sweep in Uttar Pradesh and an otherwise fragmented verdict between the UPA and NDA, Mayawati could indeed emerge as a compromise candidate for India’s top political spot. But the talk goes far beyond just the circumstances that could lead Mayawati to be the country’s second female and first scheduled caste prime minister; she is now being talked about as the centre of gravity for a nascent third front. Undoubtedly, the BSP will remain a force to be reckoned with in Uttar Pradesh for the foreseeable future. The real question is whether, out of the shifting alignments set in motion by the Left’s withdrawal of support from the UPA government, a stable third front can emerge with Mayawati at the helm. And on this question, there is reason to be sceptical about the emergence of a coherent and durable third front whose members remain firmly outside the orbits of the Congress and the BJP.

The major problem facing a potential BSP-led third front is the lack of glue that would hold the alliance together. One potential source of cohesiveness is ideology. Third front constituents might stick together over the long haul if their leaders’ long-term ideological commitments to a third way trumped potential short-term political gains. But, what could possibly constitute the ideological glue that holds Mayawati’s caste-based social engineering together with Jayalalitha’s populism, Prakash Karat’s anti-imperialist social democracy, Brindaban Goswami’s regionalist and ethnic appeals, and Chandrababu Naidu’s visions of technology-led development? Instead, state-level political exigencies unite these parties. Virtually all of these parties compete principally with the Congress (or one of its current allies) at the state-level, and many of them are also unwilling to concede too much space to the BJP lest they lose their upper hand to the saffron party in state politics (i.e., TDP, INLD, AGP). But many of these political equations are not set in stone as future Congress-AIADMK or BJP-INLD tie-ups are hardly out of the question. And if political expediency is all that would keep third front parties united behind the BSP, then what would stop any of them from unceremoniously quitting a third front, just as the Samajwadi Party dropped the UNPA when the Congress came calling?

So if ideology is not the glue that can hold together a third front, then perhaps pure political calculation can. It could hang together if it made good electoral sense. Unfortunately, it does not. The ideal electoral alliance is one in which the partners simultaneously increase their likelihood of winning without cutting into each other’s vote banks. A good example of this is the Akali-BJP combine in Punjab. In allying, they avoid splitting the non-Congress vote and thereby increase their chances of winning. Meanwhile, each retains its distinct vote bank. Among the members of a would-be third front, there is little danger of any one party eating into the support base of any other since each of the parties has its own regional strongholds. By the same token they have little to offer one another electorally. Such an alliance will not improve the LDF’s chances of retaining power in Kerala or the AGP’s prospects of making a comeback in Assam. Most of the parties would be almost as electorally well off outside a third front alliance as they would be inside.

Mayawati has pitched herself as the fulcrum for a new third front, but the BSP is not in a position to anchor a third front in the way that the Congress and the BJP anchor their respective alliances. The Congress and the BJP have both brokered a number of mutually beneficial electoral alliances because of the votes that they can offer potential allies in a number of critical states. At present, the BSP can make few such offers. The BSP has scored more than 3 per cent of the vote in only 20 of the 66 assembly elections held from 1998 till today, and only 5 per cent of the vote in ten of the 66. Moreover, many of the states in which the BSP has made the most progress — Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh — are Congress-BJP two-party states in which there are no potential regional allies to be found. The parties with the most to gain from a BSP alliance are currently the very parties from which Mayawati is currently distancing herself and that are the most hostile to a potential third front. If the BSP were a valuable electoral ally to or potential spoiler in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam or Haryana, then the BSP could possibly secure some semi-permanent allies in these states with the lure of its votes. Rather, these are precisely the states (with the partial exception of Haryana), where the BSP is yet to register more than a token presence. Until the party has something concrete to offer potential allies in these states, keeping all of the potential third front partners out of the embrace of either the BJP or Congress will be an extremely difficult task.

All of this notwithstanding, in a badly fragmented Lok Sabha Mayawati could emerge as India’s next prime minister. But her position as the leader of a revitalised third front is far less likely. Without a stable alliance behind her, it is hard to envision a Mayawati-led government lasting any longer than those of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral or even her own previous governments in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, the stability that Mayawati’s BSP may provide to UP thanks to its absolute majority there will be all but impossible at the national-level until she can find something—whether ideology or electoral calculation—to hold together her nascent third front.

The writer is a doctoral candidate in political science at MIT express@expressindia.com

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