On March 12 yet another Third Front is to be born with Deve Gowda,a familiar face at such get-togethers,playing the host at Tumkur in Karnataka. Such fronts consist of parties of somewhat similar clout and size but conflicting ambitions; thus by their very composition they inject instability into the polity. Twice,Third Front governments (V.P. Singhs in 1989 and Deve Gowdas in 1996) have been installed at the Centre and collapsed well before their full tenure. A Third Front government is dependent on the support of a larger party. When a Congress or BJP-led coalition government is in the saddle it has far more room to manoeuvre,since it is the large,core party that relies on smaller parties rather than vice versa. For instance,the Manmohan Singh government managed to survive the trust vote on the nuclear deal last year by persuading the Samajwadi Party and smaller parties to fill the gap left by the departure of the communists.
If the prospect of a Third Front government emerging after the 2009 polls has brightened,even if the third alternative may actually be third in its tally of MPs,it is because it is assumed that,with a three-way division,neither the UPA nor the NDA may be within easy reach of the halfway mark. What has set alarm bells ringing in both the UPA and the NDA is that,this time round,their allies appear shifty and unreliable. The NDAs ranks have already been depleted by defections,the latest body blow being the departure of the BJD,an uncomplaining electoral partner for the last decade. In Maharashtra,the Shiv Sena is flirting with Sharad Pawar. The vibes between the JD(U) and the BJP in Bihar are cool,although Chief Minister Nitish Kumar cannot extricate himself from the alliance without jeopardising his government.
In the UPA,an old fox like Sharad Pawar,with one eye to the prime ministers post,openly consorts with the Congresss political enemies. The bad blood and distrust between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress cannot be wished away,even if the two eventually reach an uneasy understanding over seat sharing in Uttar Pradesh.
The growing clout of the Third Front can be attributed in large measure to the Left. The communists,with a solid flank of 60 MPs,served as the glue keeping the UPA government together for most of its term. The Left was instrumental in the smooth and speedy installation of the Manmohan Singh government. Disillusioned with the Congress after the nuclear deal,the Left now positions itself as both anti-BJP and anti-Congress and could play spoiler if either party makes a bid to form the government.
While strengthening the Third Front,the Left has,at the same time,harmed the prospects of both the UPA and the NDA. In Tamil Nadu,it has reached an electoral understanding with Jayalalithaa and in Andhra Pradesh with Chandrababu Naidu. Both regional leaders are the Congresss principal opponents in their respective states and the BJP had hoped to tie up with them. The Lefts latest coup is getting the BJDs Naveen Patnaik to accept its support to retain his state government.
One reason for the general shakiness of Third Fronts is that the constituents often view the alliance simply as a springboard for political advancement: they can jump ship without a qualm. For instance,Mulayam Singh Yadav set up the short-lived United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) in 2007,opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal,but defected to the Congress side last year when he spied greener pastures. Mayawati,who addressed a UNPA rally when she saw a chance to head a Central government if the UPA fell,subsequently drifted away from the front.
A big dilemma for any front is the large number of contenders for prime ministership. It is a problem which the CPM,which fancies itself as both kingmaker and mediator,may not be able to resolve easily. A dogmatic,disciplined Prakash Karat,insulated for most of his career within the CPM,is not of the same cut as his pragmatic predecessor as party general secretary,the late Harkishen Singh Surjeet. Comrade Surjeet was steeped in Third Front culture and knew the art of managing fractious coalitions. In 1996 and 1997,Surjeet played a key role,narrowing the choice to two relatively unknown politicians,Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral,neither with many enemies or rivals within the alliance. Surjeet shrewdly realised that the two most powerful regional satraps in the United Front,Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad,cancelled each others chances out.
Sharad Pawar,who has spent a lifetime cultivating friends in different parties,believes he has an edge this time; but Nitish Kumar could be an equally powerful contender though neither is at present even in the Third Front. The additional complications this time are Jayalalithaa and Mayawati: neither is used to playing second fiddle; both hope to do well; neither has an inspiring record as coalition partners. How they play their cards could decide the fate of the Third Front after the elections.