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Are third fronts actually viable?

Coalition experiments in India have become staple in politics, yet between the myth and reality of their actual formation and implementation falls the shadow. The idea of a ‘third front’ consisting of non-Congress and non-BJP parties taking charge of the centre, nevertheless, comes up on a regular basis, particularly in the pre-election scenarios when all the regional satraps want to assert their dominance over a diminished and tarnished centre. With Mulayam Singh Yadav floating the idea once again at a recent public meeting, that of a ‘third front committed to social change’, one does wonder whether such loose amalgamation of parties, based purely on election contingencies, could have any longevity in today’s tumultuous political matrix. Before Mulayam, it was Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who was heard talking about a third front, despite the fact that the history of third fronts in this country has been rather unpleasant thus far. Short-term governments have existed in India, such as those of the Janata Party in 1977 (riding the post-Emergency anti-Indira wave), the National Front government led by VP Singh in 1989 (ruined for trying to apply Mandal commission recommendations), or even the 24-partnered BJP-led NDA that was birthed in 1998, but lasted only for 13 months until pulled down by AIADMK chief Jayalalitha with Congress backing. The non-Congress years have been ridden with these temporary and shabby associations that fell apart like a pack of cards precisely because other than ostentatious political gamesmanship, there was nothing binding the parties that came together to form a whole and run the show.

While federalism in India has a strong bias towards the union government in the centre, and while the states crib and rant about unequal status, discrimination, lack of funds and other issues, increasingly, the weakened stature of national parties is attracting attention from regional supremos, who want to up the ante on the rather shrunk Congress and BJP. Even the Left parties have now been confined in Tripura, losing bastions like West Bengal and Kerala to others. As the state governments look for greater say in national politics by dangling the carrot of external support to the central government, the prime ministerial aspirations of their leaders become gradually visible and assertive, with trailblazers like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, and even Mamata Banerjee not shying away from open declarations. Yet, the mutual mistrust and clashing ambitions ensure that the ramshackle combines formed in the wake of underhand negotiations and kickbacks remain in ‘critical chaos’, marred by permanent infighting, and never deliver strong leadership or political vision. It is rather unfortunate because it is only in coalition systems that the true nature of our federal democratic republic is reflected, where the states have bigger roles to play and the centre comes across as strong but not overbearing.  However, unless a new set of policies are brought in, such motley clusters, without an ideological unity or political direction, are doomed to stay as incoherent nebulae, merely plugging the gaps between Congress or BJP-led power structures.
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