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The Third Front Mirage Again

An alliance featuring the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Left Front and motley political parties cannot be termed a viable alternative to the two dominant parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or even as a "third front". That is because most parties in this front have forged the grouping on the basis of plain opportunism. Only a viable democratic socialist alternative envisioned and led by a left that has been suitably transformed can emerge as a platform for change.

COMMENTARYaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32The Third Front Mirage AgainV Krishna AnanthAn alliance featuring the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Left Front and motley political parties cannot be termed a viable alternative to the two dominant parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or even as a “third front”. That is because most parties in this front have forged the grouping on the basis of plain opportunism. Only a viable democratic socialist alternative envisioned and led by a left that has been suitably transformed can emerge as a platform for change.Another third front is in the making. The nucleus this time is Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The end game of this combination is to install Mayawati as India’s prime minister. The foundation for this formation was laid in the context of the trust vote consequent to the decision by the left parties to with-draw support to the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) govern-ment. We found all this written in the print media and discussed on private news channels during the couple of days beforeand after the confidence vote in the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2008. The bomb blasts in Bangalore and subsequently in Ahmedabad have led to a premature end to this discussion.The basis for this third front was laid on the common grounds created by a combi-nation of Communist Party of India (Marxist)-CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat’s ego and Mayawati’s ambition to become the prime minister. And thus the central concern turned out to be whether the various opposition leaders, most of them being hardly of any significance, agreed to support Mayawati as prime minister. Chandrababu Naidu, Chandrasekhara Rao and H D Deve Gowda were among the political party leaders whose opinion on this was considered important and so too Om Prakash Chautala and Ajit Singh.All these were important leaders who had an impact on national politics at some point in the past and it is possible that they may re-emerge as leaders with clout in thefuture too. One cannot write off any political party or leader given the dynamics of our political discourse. But,therewas abundant absurdity in the mannerin which this third front was discussed by the media during the week when the con-fidence vote was taken by the Lok Sabha. The Left Front and the BSP add up to only 77 members of Parliament (MPs) in the House; and the others who gathered around them such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS), Janata Dal (Secular)-JD(S), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) can at best add less than a dozen MPs to the front. In other words, all these parties put together were adding up to less than 100MPs in a House of 543 and the media began constructing tales of a front in the making and anointed Mayawati as prime minister designate.That was absurd to say the least; it was also baffling that none of the leaders, including Mayawati, found it prudent to tell the media professionals that they were wrong in what they were doing. The media professionals simply went about display-ing their lack of common sense. There was a vulgar design behind this too. The me-dia managed to construct the spectre of a dalitas India’s prime minister in the process andprovoked a reaction, from among the middle classes, against this. All this was done by deliberately pushing the real basis of the realignment of forces, under the carpet.Plain OpportunismTake for instance the fact that barring the left parties, none of the others in this com-bination were definite about their attitude to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The TRS, for instance, had declared its intention to vote against the government only because the Congress Party and the UPA government it led were not prepared to commit to the formation of a separate Telangana. It was also a fact that neither the left nor the TDP was willing to do that but then the TRS de-cided to teach the Congress a lesson and that was all that was required as a reason to vote against the government in the trust vote. Similarly, the TDP, with only five MPs (and it turned out that two of them voted for the government) was consistently anti-Congress and had shown its willingness to sup with the BJP in the past and has not shown any determination to desist from that in the future too.The BSP, similarly, joined the left-led moves only because its adversary in Uttar Pradesh – the Samajwadi Party (SP) – had jumped on to the Congress-led fold and had begun pushing the union government to abuse the Central Bureau of Investiga-tion (CBI) and other central investigation V Krishna Ananth (krishnananth@gmail.com) is an advocate and political commentator based in Chennai.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 9, 200833agencies to push Mayawati around and drag her into facing criminal charges. It was common knowledge for anyone with even a remote understanding of the po-litical discourse of Uttar Pradesh to con-clude that the SP and the BSP can never be seen on the same side of the political spec-trum. This kind of antipathy, we know for example, has determined the political alignment in Tamil Nadu for long ensur-ing that theDMK and the AIADMK are nec-essarily seen on either sides of the political divide between the Congress and the BJP since the past decade.As for the INLD, no one including its leader Om Prakash Chautala, would know whether the party is committed to secu-larism or communalism at any given point of time. And the same holds good for Deve Gowda and his JD(S), though M P Veerendra Kumar, one of the party’s three MPs, is a “natural’’ ally of the left simply because his political stakes are intrinsically and intimately tied up with theCPI(M) in Kerala. TheRLD, led by Ajit Singh has shown, in the past, its willingness to strike deals and bargain with the Congress or theBJP or with any political party in Uttar Pradesh as long as it helps Ajit Singh become a minister or at least makes him richer. And the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) too is no different from any of these formations and ideologically it is closer to the BJP than the left or any other democratic platform in Assam.Hotchpotch AllianceAll this is to say that there was no way that the hotchpotch alliance that came up in the limited context of the confidence vote could have evolved into a third front both in the context of this Lok Sabha as wellasin the medium term involving elections to the next Lok Sabha. In a sense, thiswas essentially a creation of the media aswellas the desire of the self-preserving class of leaders who constitute these parties to bask under the prospect of emerging leaders of significance at the national level. It is true that Mayawati was seen as believing that she is now the pivot of a national political formation and must have imagined herself as India’s prime minister in the making. She must have, otherwise, dismissed all such talks in real earnest and clarified that the unity was for the limited purpose of showing that Manmohan Singh and his cabinet lacked the majority support in the Lok Sabha. And for obvious reasons, the left parties too did not consider it impera-tive to clarify this much.The Need for an AlternativeIt is important to clarify that all this is not to dismiss the possibility and the necessity for a non-Congress-non-BJP political formation at the national level. In other words, such a front, call it by any name, is necessary as well as possible. And this will necessarily have to hinge around the left parties rather than being forged aroundone or another avatar of the myriad “socialist” platforms as it had been happening inthe past. It will be appropriate, in this context, to briefly recount the trajectory of this process in our past. The process of opposition unity began in the mid-1960s when the Congress began losing its position as the natural choice of the Indian voter. The initiative and the framework for that unity came from Ram Manohar Lohia and it yielded fruits in the general elections in 1967 when the Congress Party was voted out in nine states and was reduced to a mere 283 seats in a 520 strong Lok Sabha. The opposition, then, consisted of the Socialist Party, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the Swatantra Party and the left. This process continued to un-fold during the decade after it came up and evolved into the Janata Party in 1977. If the force behind the change in 1967 was the overall administrative failure of the regime and the weaknesses inherent in the Nehruvian socialist agenda, the catalyst for the alignment of forces in 1977 came in the form of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.But then, between 1967 and 1977, the left had learned substantive lessons from the experience and matured into main-taining a distance from the formation. The collapse of the Janata government in 1978-79 and the fact that the left had stayed clear of promoting and preserving the for-mation in its original self was indeed based on a clear understanding that an al-ternative to the existing regime will have to be one that is strategic and not merely a tactical formation. And this understanding was behind the manner in which the left treated the V P Singh experiment and the Janata Dal in 1989. EMSNamboodiripad then led theCPI(M) and the other left parties by extension to set the terms for their support to the regime rather than be seen running around to forge just another alternative to the Congress. All this, however, was given up and the task of forging an alternative was re-defined from the framework of politics-as-the-art-of-the-possible in May 1996 by Harkishen Singh Surjeet who took over from Namboodiripad as the next general secretary of the CPI(M). The United Front, in that sense, was anything but an alter-native to the Congress. Nor was it a political formation that was committed to keep the BJP at bay and this was proved when such parties as the TDP, the DMK (or such smaller outfits from Tamil Nadu as the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) jumped over to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) just when that became the ruling alliance at the centre. And we alsonoticed that the most significant ele-ments from the socialist fold of the Janata Party had settled down with the BJP by 1998-99 because that made it possible for the leaders of those outfits to become ministers. And in due course, the others who hadpracticaldifficulties about joining the BJP-led combine agreed to team up with the Congress (read Laloo Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal) for the same reason as a Sharad Yadav and a Nitish Kumar teamed up with theBJP.We have also found such players like Ram Vilas Paswan (a product of the churn-ing in 1967) and Ajit Singh (whose father Charan Singh split up the Janata Party ob-jecting to the presence of the Jan Sangh members in that) having no problems in teaming up with both the BJP and the Con-gress at various times. All these were re-duced to insignificant developments by Deve Gowda through his political games in Karnataka in the past few years. And now we have Mulayam Singh Yadav, another key player in the political discourse during the decade between 1989 and 1999 turning into the strategic planner in the game to preserve the Manmohan Singh regime. Maintainers of the Status quoThere is something common to all these machinations. These formations, in the name of being alternatives to the status
COMMENTARYaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly34quo, have only emerged as promoters of a political economy that has landed the nation into where we are and are eager to push the same model further as a solution or a way out of the crisis. That the nation is in the grip of a crisis that encompasses the political, economic and social realms is a fact that all these parties agree on. And it is also a fact that all of them have been active players in the making of the policies that led into this crisis. While it was a settled issue that the Congress Party was responsible, through its policies, for this crisis, the fact is that theBJP and its policies are not too differ-ent from that of the Congress. This was evident in July 1991 when the BJP and the Congress agreed to pass the New Eco-nomic Policy resolution in the Lok Sabha. And the record of the BJP-led govern-ment betweenApril 1998 and May 2004 was not a departure from the policy that Manmohan Singh enunciated in July 1991. The United Fronts between May 1996 and March 1998 too (of Gowda and I K Gujral) wereno different. And that is where the quest for a third front is imperative as well as possible. It is imperative because the nation cannot remain one and a peaceful place to live with mounting unemployment, under-employment and the increasing attacks on agriculture on the one hand and the pronounced neglect by the state on such critical welfare areas as the public distri-bution system, the healthcare network and the abject neglect of education as we see across the country. The fallout of this is the spread of political groups that consider violent reprisals as the means to liberation into new regions. This is a cause for concernsimplybecausewhateverbe the end game of these groups – call them the Maoists or by any other name – the consequence of their acts simply legitimises the use of brutal force by the state against the ordinary people in the villages. The ultimate result of all this could be any-thing but strengthening democracy.And at another level, we do see the re-sistance to such bad policies and the measures such as land grabbing, in the name of economic development, in Kalinganagar, Nandigram and Dadri (to name a few such struggles) or the struggle for democratic rights around the detention of Binayak Sen in Chhattisgarh under draconian laws that are illegiti-mate to say the least, building up across the country. The people in the Narmada basin and in the forests across Madhya Pradesh have been resisting the Indian state and its brutal force for several years now. The basis for a third alterna-tive must be located in these struggles and the left can lend them a political direction if only its leaders show the cour-age and honesty to revisit some of their positions that were considered settled in the past. One of them is technology as the driving force of positive change and thus the tendency to celebrate any develop-ment based on technological superiority – as for example, nuclear power.Vacancy Announcement for the position of International Research AssociateSouth Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR), Hong Kong invites applications for the position of International Research Associate under its research project “Understanding Impunity: Failures and Possibilities of Rights to Truth, Justice, and Reparation”, focusing on South Asia, to be based at its Kathmandu office. Specific Responsibilities:– To develop a broad theoretical framework on dimensions of impunity and failures of rights to truth, justice and reparation on the basis of qualitative and quantitative data collected from the four regions – Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Gujarat in line with the national and international human rights and humanitarian perspectives; to capture and analyze the egregiousness of sexual violence on women in conflict situations and its differential impact on their rights to life and the implications for human security and the principles of reparation; to lead the project’s attempts to capture women’s experiences and narratives of conflict and violence, with regard to their corporeal integrity, sexual security, reproductive rights as well as the mainstream implications of violence against women for reparation and restoration of human security; to document and analyze the phenomenon of silent acquiescence in sexual violence against women within the victim communities for the sake of “honor” and to avoid “shame”; and, to develop a comprehensive survey and analysis of the literature on sexual violence in South Asia. Qualifications:– A candidate must have a Masters Degree in Law or Social Science and specialization in international human rights and humanitarian law.Experience: – Must be acquainted with the histories and experiences of conflict in Gujarat, Kashmir, Northeastern States and Punjab; must have at least 7 years of experience in researching and writing on the issues of human rights, conflicts, justice, governance and the rule of law; the candidates must have three years of field work experience in research; and, fluent in speaking and writing English. Duty station: KathmanduDuration: 24 months (Commencing from November 2008 – October 2010)Research fee: HKD 9500/- (Net)Deadline for the application for the position: 15 September 2008Short-listed candidates for Kathmandu based positions will be interviewed by a selection panel at New Delhi and at Kathmandu in the first week of October 2008. Interested candidates should visit www.safhr.org to learn more about the program and apply before 15 September 2008 with CV, photo, covering letter explaining research interests and experience and names of two referees to vacancy@safhr.org. The telephonic inquiries will not be entertained.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 9, 200835The incidents in Nandigram and Singur are the fallout of that mindset. And this is a legacy that the left had internalised in its thoughts from the experience of the Soviet Union in its heydays. That bag-gage will have to be discarded by the left parties if their quest for a third front is to be realised in any meaningful manner. In other words, the left parties must agree to define the socialist alternative as one where the rights of the human being in the political, cultural, social and economic sense of the term is internalised as non-negotiable. That is, the idea that social-ism is not just about a change in the men at the helm of affairs and is instead a brand new alternate vision to capitalism will have to constitute the very basis of their existence as a political party. For the left’s claims to forge an alternative, to make sense, it will have to locate that process and that project in these various struggles against the liberalisation-privati-sation-globalisation agenda as well as the undemocratic options that the existing regimes are resorting to against the people and their organisations. In conclusion, it is relevant here to re-call what Frederich Engels had to say in his own times about the communist project. Referring to the experience of the Paris commune, where the working class for the first time held political power for two whole months, Engels wrote another preface to the Communist Manifesto in 1888. And in that, Marx’s intimate friend and collaborator said: “One thing especially was proved by the commune, viz, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. Well, a third front or anything else that the communists attempt will have to have the revolutionary transfor-mation of the lives of the toiling people as its strategic end and that cannot be served by mere tinkering of the set-up that we now have. Theatre of the (Tragic) AbsurdGPDThe drama over the bribe operations and buying ofMPs had all the characteristics of a third rate comedy. Except that, it is turning out to be tragic.If you, like us, find the Indian Lok Sabha and the debates there, such as they are, immensely amusing, we are sure that you spent hours on end (load shedding permitting), listening to the inaudible debate on the trust motion moved by the prime minister. In the Vedas there is a description of the brahmans reciting the verses from the Vedas. They have been likened there to hundreds of frogs croaking collectively. Earlier we always wondered howthe noise of the reciting human frogs would have sounded and what the point of such collective noise was. We are sure you too have wondered. Now we know. On July 21and 22,we understood. Such a din would have ensured that the honourable members would have heard only their own voice. It must have been great for the members as they in any case do not like to hear anyone except their own dis-tinguished selves. There is no elixir like one’s own voice mouthing principles and morality. Never had we heard impossible-to-decipher-noise being so completely meaningful. It was a coalition democracy at work. Coalition democracy is all about noise levels.At the end of the tiring noise for two days one discovered that 15 or so defections settled the issue. It is obvious that these defections could not have been the effect of the inaudible persuasions. As is the Indian political practice their defections are superstructure created through a solid and substantial material base. Consider-ing that it was the United Progressive Alli-ance (UPA) government that survived the confidence motion it is not difficult to see who provided the material base. To be fair to the Congress-ledUPA, the material base they provided was certainly more success-ful than what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) might have had to offer. In other words UPA was not alone in creating new standards of democratic behaviour. The difference is that the largesse they had to offer was greater and more reliable than the one offered by the other party. The whole business began with the left parties withdrawing their support (from outside) to the Manmohan Singh govern-ment on the question of the nuke deal with the Bush (soon to be Obama or McCain) land. We suffer from certain technology blindness. We were therefore never able to say if the technical matters involved in our arrangements with the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were ipso facto against the national interest. This matter is so technical that theMPs could not have possibly debated it, as indeed they could not. Technically the treaty need not have been debated in the Lok Sabha. But there were understandable references to the proposed treaty. GPD (gpdesh@vsnl.com) is a well known commentator on literary and political affairs.

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