THE political scientist wonders whether a pendulum swing has not destabilised the democratic clock. The regional politician believes that a ‘third front’ prime minister is an idea that cannot be quenched; national parties are convinced that it is merely an itch that can never be cured.
The search for a prime minister from outside the bipolar confines of Congress and the BJP has been a consistent subplot of the Indian power play since the 1980s. What we call the third front, leaving the first two positions to Congress and the BJP, is a consequence of the collapse of the Janata Party in 1981 and the inability of its non-BJP constituents to re-pool their sectarian resources into a credible presence in the Lok Sabha.
There are four distinct formations in Indian politics: Congress, the alternative Congress (defined primarily by its inability to accept family rule as a permanent factor within the party), the BJP and the Left. The alternative Congress constitutes those who have once been in Congress or the Socialist Party and whose policy outlines are as fluid as those of Congress, shifting from quasi-socialist to World Bank-reformist depending on need or environment. Its high point came in 1977, when, in the avatar of the Janata Party, it led the Union government in Delhi.
It was entirely consistent that the Janata prime minister was a blue-blooded Congressman, Morarji Desai, and its party president was a stalwart who had shifted from a socialist start to Mrs Indira Gandhi’s Congress before he rebelled. The BJP, then called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, also merged into Janata under public pressure in 1977, but never compromised its identity; a split and dispersal were inevitable after defeat in 1980.
What was less understandable was the inability of the non-BJP elements to stick together within the Janata Party. They became victims of ego and hallucination to such an extent that repeated reminders by reality of their foolishness could not change their habits. They clung on to zamindaris they could control autocratically when a republic was theirs for the taking.
If the various entities that exist as sub-Congress parties went back to the parent, Congress would be able to restore single-party rule in the country. But this will not happen as long as Congress is traumatised into believing that a Rahul Gandhi or a Priyanka Gandhi is a better option for prime minister than a Sharad Pawar or a Nitish Kumar.
The family worked as long as it was perceived as adding critical value to the vote garnered by regional satraps. But all over the country, state-level leaders have replaced Congress as the principal inspiration for popular support and in many places squeezed Congress to near-extinction. Why should Mamata Banerjee or Naveen Patnaik take orders from a high command when in fact the latter should be taking orders from them on matters pertaining to Bengal or Orissa? Politics is a practical business. Those who supply votes will demand authority.
The BJP, as the principal force within the National Democratic Alliance, has understood that primacy does not mean supremacy. It is quite happy to play second fiddle in Bihar, leaving charge of the orchestra to Nitish Kumar. There are BJP leaders who resent this, arguing that this blocks the party’s growth. But that is the price of electoral compulsions. If the BJP wants to come to power in a contemporary election it must deliberately lower the potential of its growth rate to levels that do not threaten its existing partners. Temperamentally, Congress is less suited to compromise, either with foe or friend, but once again the desire to be in office today far outweighs the prospects of coming to power tomorrow. Since marriage is no longer considered compulsory for cohabitation in this liberated age, all alliances have only the mild glue of dalliance.
Third-front ambitions rise, therefore, when Congress is in disarray. The logic that made Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral prime ministers was that Congress would accept anyone in order to keep the BJP out of power. Conversely, BJP’s support for V.P. Singh as prime minister and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as his home minister in 1989 was largely driven by the desire to keep Congress out of office. The 21st century has brought some change. A thin coalition like the one headed by V.P. Singh or Deve Gowda will not be acceptable to the voter. When it falls, as it inevitably must, both the direct beneficiary of an artificial contrivance and those who supported it will be punished.
The next general elections will answer a vital question: will the Indian voter elect a parliament that can only offer a weak prime minister? At a regional level a pattern has emerged.
Change, when it comes, does so in a sweeping manner, demolishing the successor’s option of an alibi. So far, a national pattern has not been so coherent. But change does not always send a preview. We must be prepared for surprise.
The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London, and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.