Decoding Third Front politics
The emerging Third Front’s ambition of dethroning the two main contenders for the Centre seat may inadvertently aid one to power in the upcoming 2019 general elections
So, who is behind the Third Front politics 100 days ahead of the elections today? Who gains and who loses? Is a Third Front (TF) which does not have either BJP or Congress at its core going to make any difference? Answers to these questions may give directions to the results of the 2019 general elections in India.
The Third Front was also born when Congress was the first front once upon a time. Never did a non-Congress and non-BJP TF complete a term and, in fact, they have always been a disaster. The main opposition party Congress, though gaining strength in 2018, is weak nationally. Still, there can be no hope of TF coming to power on its own without inside or outside support from one of the two major national parties with the avowed objective of keeping the other out of power. Hence, TF sounds suicidal, destined to fail and a drag on the polity. This then is the simplest explanation. And there is more than what meet the eyes in politics. Four reasons that may aid TF's rise.
Third Front for regional aspirations
First, Third Front is about regional parties and they reflect the aspirations of the regionally powerful classes, castes and lobbies. TF is preferred by state 'satraps' who want to yield power locally unhindered by the Centre, want a pie in the Centre as well, and are backed by big business houses and social groups of the states in their own interest. So, a strong Telangana business lobby would back KCR of TRS to go beyond the state and have a bigger national say so that they can corner more business deals and operate with higher autonomy. And, that is true for BJD of Odisha or the MY lobby of Bihar behind RJD, etc. In the Indian context, unless the national parties effectively represent these local aspirations, which often they have not, the regional money bags and social forces will remain and, hence, regional parties will operate aiming for a bigger national role.
Third Front for regional parties with national aspirations
Second, some regional forces remain, while nurturing national spread and aspirations, more so if their social base has roots in other states of India as well, like Mayawati whose BSP has some support base among Dalits across the country (more so in the Hindi heartland). This may also mean that other regional parties which may aspire for a national spread and role riding on issues like Aam Admi Party riding on the anti-corruption sentiment, or Shiv Sena promising to be the real Hindutva force across India. These parties actually aspire, openly and in case of Shiv Sena, secretly, to spread their wings across India.
Third Front propped to break the Opposition alliance
Third, often, the ruling party or alliance props up a third front to destabilise the main opposition alliance as some of the constituents of the third front would have otherwise been in the main opposition. They use one or two regional forces, with whom the ruling party does not contest much and in whose areas its stakes are low, to come up and wreck the opposition chances. A similar thing can be seen now through KCR of TRS. KCR has no threat from BJP and BJP has made no headway into Telangana. So, it works fine if TRS works to benefit BJP and takes its pound of flesh later after the polls. Already, it has supported the ruling NDA in Rajya Sabha Vice President's elections and in the No Confidence Motion in the last Parliament session. If TRS can actually put up a third front of regional parties, touted as Federal Front, it might actually divide the opposition votes to the advantage of BJP, as seen in the mood of the national opinion poll a few days earlier.
Third Front in states to weaken the ruling incumbent
Fourth, there is another and the most practical reason why there shall be, in reality, the ruling national NDA, the opposing national UPA, and then the series of state/region level Federal Front. The jury is divided on who loses more due to this, BJP or Congress.
Take for example the recent Chhattisgarh polls where a Third Front of Ajit Jogi's Janata Congress, Mayawati's BSP and CPI of the Left joined hands to form the third front. BJP was all smiles as Jogi is a former Congress CM there, and BSP and Left voters are also largely anti-BJP voters. But what it failed to take note of is that BJP was already having 80 per cent sitting MLAs in the SC/ST reserved seats of Chhattisgarh. This could have been done only because, for the earlier one decade, BJP and Sangh Parivar worked hard to build their own organisation in the tribal and Dalit areas. But in the just-concluded state polls, the tribal and Dalit voters of Chhattisgarh in large numbers voted against the BJP due to their pains of demonetisation and multi-layered GST. So whatever the TF got comprised essentially BJP voters.
Coming to the most critical state of Uttar Pradesh today, it is quite clear that BSP, SP and RLD have come together to keep BJP out of power and Congress out of seat-share. Reports in certain sections of the media also suggest that BSP may walk away with a larger chunk of seats (38), SP will most likely contest on 37 while Chaudhary Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) may get three in western UP. Only the Amethi and Rai Bareilly seats have been left for the Gandhi family. While Yadavs constitute 15 per cent of the state's total votes, Muslims constitute 18 per cent and Dalits form about 21 per cent. The Dalit, Muslim and Yadav votes make a killing combination to take on BJP – which is seen largely as being an upper-caste vote bank beneficiary. But it's this mega-alliance in UP which may actually jeopardise Modi and Amit Shah's 2019 Lok Sabha plans. Just the two seats won by Congress in the 2014 Modi tsunami have been left aside as a token. While this may look tough on Congress, this is actually a very strategic move by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. Let's not forget that Congress won 21 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 2009. The party still has some hold among upper-caste voters in UP and this may eat into BJP votes in a tri-cornered fight, benefitting the SP-BSP combine in case of a close contest in some constituencies.
A similar situation is in Bengal. If TMC ties up with Congress and the Left, which itself is an impossible proposition given their political backgrounds, the entire anti-establishment votes will gravitate towards BJP including those of the Left and Congress helping the saffron party in Bengal, where it has just two MPs of which the Darjeeling win cannot be repeated (last time being in partnership with Gorkha Mukti Morcha who are now dead against BJP). Hence, to defeat Modi-Shah, Mamata needs to avoid Congress-Left association, just as BSP-SP needed to avoid Congress in UP.
Again, in the same way, in Odisha, Congress contesting on its own and not in association with BJD will actually divide the anti-BJD votes between Congress and BJP, denying BJP major gains there. Same is in Kerala, where if UPA fights polls separately from Left Front, BJP will be marginalised in spite of its Sabrimala antics.
Bihar and most of the other Hindi states will see a straight fight between a BJP-led alliance and a Congress-led opposition. In Maharashtra, Congress gains if Shiv Sena fights alone (unlikely though), and in Tamil Nadu, DMK-Congress-Kamal Haasan combo gains if AIADMK and BJP fight separately. In Andhra, it will be interesting to see if YSR Congress ties up BJP or fights separately against the TDP-Congress combine. For Karnataka, it is a clear Congress-JDS combine against BJP.
Third Front purposes: to weaken one of the other two
Hence, the issue of a Third Front is not that simple. Many reasons are there why BJP wants KCR to succeed in making a Federal Front; and why Congress does not mind fighting polls separately as a third force itself in many states with strong regional parties. The one-to-one contest actually helps build the BJP narrative of presidentialising the polls with Modi's face. Multi-cornered in many important states makes it difficult.
(The author is a media academic and columnist, and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai. The views expressed are strictly personal)