ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Left and the Third Front

Even though the third front has had a fluctuating history, the common opposition to the centralising idea of nationalism espoused by both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party provides the ground for the coming together of left, regional and lower caste political forces. For this to happen, all three will have to imaginatively rework their programmatic positions to accommodate the aspirations of the others. While there are many hurdles to this, such a front is essential if the stranglehold of the parties representing Indian big capital has to be broken and space created for long-term success of progressive politics.


COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 129the BJP at a local level than in the Congress. However, this segment has a marginalised role in shaping and influencing the overall class orientation of the BJP, which is over-whelmingly in favour of big capital.In the Congress Party, historically there has been a segment of political activists and leaders who articulated the reformist aspirations of industrial labour. That seg-ment has become increasingly marginal-ised and is now totally ineffective in shap-ing the politico-economic vision of the Congress Party. The party has now be-come an unambiguous champion of the interests of big Indian capital. There is certainly the influence of international capital on the economic agenda that is articulated by Congress, but that influence is largely compatible with the global aspi-rations of big Indian capital. The overall class perspective of the Congress and the BJP in favour of big Indian capital puts them in direct opposition to the egalitari-an perspective of the left parties, and their support for an integrated Indian capitalist market also creates tensions with the re-gion and state-based parties.2In terms of their political perspectives on caste, and the caste composition of their leadership and mass base, both the Congress and theBJP are predominantly upper caste parties. Historically, the Con-gress had a substantial base amongst the lower castes, which had ensured the emer-gence of lower caste leaders in the organi-sational set-up of the party. That base has been significantly eroded in the past few decades by the emergence of parties rep-resenting the middle castes and the lower castes. The erosion of that caste base has resulted in the further marginalisation of party leaders representing the lower castes and even middle castes. The BJP has been a much more upper caste- oriented party than the Congress. This has been mainly due to the brahminical influence of Hindutva ideology and organ-isations (such as the Rashtriya Swayamse-vak Sangh). In the past couple of decades, some sections in theBJP leadership have tried to build a social base amongst the middle castes (for example inUP), and even amongst the lower castes and tribals (for example in Gujarat). However, the upper caste-oriented Hindutva ideology of the BJP creates a structural barrier in expanding its social base beyond the upper castes. Although there are interstate differenc-es in the caste social base of both the Con-gress and the BJP, both these parties re-main primarily upper caste parties in terms of the composition of their leader-ship. This upper caste dominance in both the Congress and the BJP pits them in op-position to the parties representing the lower castes and even middle castes. UP and Bihar are the two states in India where caste-based regional parties have success-fully challenged the earlier dominance of both the Congress and theBJP. Electorally, the Congress has been the main sufferer from the rise of these caste-based parties because the middle caste and lower caste support base which the Congress Party previously had, has shifted substantially to these caste-based regional parties. The Congress has lost substantial base even amongst the upper caste social groups (eg, brahmins and Rajputs) who have largely shifted their allegiance to the BJP.Components of the Third FrontThe three components of the possible third front – the left, the regional nation-alist parties and the BSP – have one com-mon and several different reasons in oppo-sing the Congress and the BJP. The left is primarily opposed to the class politics of both these parties. In addition to that,the left is opposed to the Hindu-nationalist ideological vision of the BJP. Although the left’s vacillating positions towards the integrationist and centralising political perspective of the Congress Party’s Indian nationalist vision is an obstacle in its articulation of a clear oppositionist stance towards the Congress, the fact that the Congress is its main electoral opponent inthe three states of West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, where the left has its main base, does force it to sharpen its anti-Congress politics.The regional parties are opposed to the BJP and the Congress primarily because both are ideologically supportive of a strong centre. Some of these regional par-ties (e g, the Akali Dal in Punjab and, at an earlier stage, the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh) have allied themselves with the BJP not because of the proximity of their politics to those of the BJP, but because the Congress is their main electoral opponent.3 If there is a viable non-BJP and non- Congress third front, almost all regional al-lies of the BJP (except perhaps the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra) will walk out of their alliance with the BJP.4 The recent decision of the Oriya nationalist party, the Biju Ja-nata Dal, to break its ties with the BJP is a pointer in this direction.5 All regional na-tionalist parties see the Congress and BJP’s centralising agendas as a threat to their re-gion-based identity and strength. They are, therefore, natural components of a possi-ble third alternative that advocates decen-tralisation, diversity and recognition of multiple regional nationalisms in India. However, for these regional parties and the left to become programmatic allies of each other, both the left and these regional na-tionalist parties have to reconfigure some aspects of their respective programmes.A Devolutionary PerspectiveThe left will have to articulate very clearly a devolutionary perspective that recognises the multiple regional nationalisms in India. If the left remains integrationist in its per-spective (as, for example, the Communist Party of India (CPI) has been more inclined towards), it will not be able to forge a sus-tainable alliance with the regional nation-alist parties. The Maoist strand in the Indi-an left has always been critical of one inte-grated Indian nationalism and has been supportive of the nationality struggles in India. The overemphasis by the Maoists on armed struggle has tended to overshadow the Maoists’ more advanced views on the nationality question in India. If the parlia-mentary left can show imagination and in-tellectual courage in articulating a vision of multiple nationalisms and federal devo-lution, it will not only be very conducive to building a broader left unity and sound alliance with the regional nationalist par-ties, it will also expand the political influ-ence of the third front.6 The regional national parties, for their part, will have to embrace some of the egalitarian aspects of the left’s vision. Any such attempt by the regional nationalist parties to radicalise their political programme towards social justice might lead to internal divisions in these regional parties. Such divisions, if they do take place, will have to be accepted as a part of the necessity of reconfiguring
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1211India as an Emerging DonorDweep Chanana Opinions expressed here are personal and not those of the organisation the author works with. Dweep Chanana ( is employed with the philanthropy services at UBS AG and has worked previously with UNDP in Kenya. India has traditionally been perceived, both domestically and globally, as an important aid receiver. But it has also had a foreign aid programme of its own which can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s. India’s aid programme was small, focused on building local capacities and viewed as benign. In the past few years, there have been marked shifts in the size, focus and strategic thinking behind India’s foreign aid programme. As an emerging donor on the world stage, India needs to align its aid strategy not with its ambitions but with a realistic assessment of its strengths and historical roots. Otherwise, it will open itself up to the same criticisms which are often directed at the other major donors. Residents in Kabul recently began to enjoy near uninterrupted electri- city thanks to a new transmission line that brings power from Uzbekistan. They can thank India for it, as well as for a road linking Afghanistan’s main cities to Iran, and the new Afghan parliament building – still under construction. If and when a stable Afghanistan emerges, a fair bit of it will be made by India. Further away, India is busy in Africa too, commit-ting recently to double lines of credit to $5.2 billion. To a certain extent, India’s benevolence is inspired by competition with China, which has used aid effectively to secure oil interests in Africa and Asia. But even if it is catch-up, it reflects a new consciousness of aid as an instrument of foreign policy. Through aid, India hopes to build new alli-ances and further its trade, energy and po-litical interests. It also hopes to present the country as powerful and self-reliant. This reveals a lot about India’s ambitions. Yet, it is unclear if India has the capability to deliver on those ambitions. So, is India’s benevolence strategic or unabashed self-promotion? What interests does India’s aid strategy further. And most important, is it realistic, taking into account both India’s strengths and many weaknesses? Critics will note that two questions are not posed here. First, whether India should have a foreign aid programme at all or use its scarce resources for internal develop-ment? For the second fastest growing major economy the choice is no longer between domestic spending and foreign policy, of which aid is a component. Rather, increasing trade, ensuring access to energy resources, and building military alliances are all necessary to ensure India’s unhindered rise. The second question is whether India’s aid should be allocated where it is most needed or will have the greatest impact. As any aid sceptic will point out, aid allocation has little to do with actual need. Flows are determined more by factors such as colonial and trade links and less by the quality of governance or potential for impact.1 However, as this analysis will show, India’s approach to aid delivery does avoid some of the most egregious problems associated with western aid delivery. Aid Programme in Perspective It would be a mistake to suggest that India’s giving is new. India has been giv-ing substantial military and economic aid within south Asia since independence. In 1958 India had already committed Rs 100 million in multi-year grants to Nepal2 and a Rs 200 million loan to Myanmar. The UK’s foreign and commonwealth office es-timates that India finances nearly 60% of Bhutan’s budget.3 There are no consolidated estimates of India’s overseas development assistance. In its absence, annual budgetary alloca-tions are a useful proxy – similar to the United States’ Foreign Operations Appro-priations Bill. In 2008, India allocated ap-proximately Rs 26.7 billion (or $547 million)4 to aid-related activities, defined here5 as grants, contributions to inter-national organisations (IOs) and inter-national financial institutions (IFIs), direct loans, and subsidies for preferential bilat-eral loans (see Table 1, p 12). In addition, it also approved lines of credit through the Exim Bank of $704 million in 2007-08, 2 For a politico-economic focus on the third front politics, see Pritam Singh (2008): “Political Eco-nomy of the ‘Third Front’ in India”, Contemporary South Asia, Volume 16, Issue 4, December.3 The unresolved tension in the Akali-BJP relations in Punjab is a relatively less explored phenome-non. There is a constant pressure on the top Akali leaders from its lower and middle ranging leader-ship to sever relations with the BJP for several reasons, but particularly on the Ram mandir is-sue, the anti-minority politics of the BJP and the attempts by the RSS to Hinduise Sikhism. It is this pressure which led top ranking Akali leader Su-khdev Singh Dhindsa to openly declare that the Akali Dal had nothing to do with the re-emphasis on Ram mandir issue in the recent BJP politics. If a third front were to emerge as a successful alter-native to the Congress, the main rival of the Aka-lis in Punjab, the pressure on the Akali Dal leader-ship for severing ties with the BJP and joining the third front will intensify. The BJP’s state unit in Punjab is also unhappy with the Akalis’ attempt to expand their electoral base among the urban Hindu groups. On Akali Dal (Badal)’s expanding electoral base among the Punjabi Hindus and the attempts by the Akali Dal to rebrand itself as a Punjabi regional party, see Pritam Singh (2007): “Punjab’s Electoral Competition”, EPW, 10 February.4 Shiv Sena is the only regional party in India that continuously aims to overcome the contra-dictionbetween regional nationalism and the Hindu-hegemonic Indian nationalism by project-ing compatibility between Marathi regionalism and Hindu nationhood.5 For a very perceptive piece on this see Biswamoy Pati (2009): “Biju Janata Dal: Signals for Change”, EPW, 28 February.6 A very fine example of left unity is the recent com-ing together in Bihar of the CPI, CPI(M) and CPI (M-L) (Liberation) to form a combined front to jointly contest the coming parliamentary elec-tions. See Chirashree Dasgupta (2009): ‘The Unit-ed Left Bloc in Bihar’, EPW, 7 March. A true left unity in India would, however, mean going be-yond this three party bloc and a negotiated inclu-sion of all left currents in India including the ones rooted in the Indian socialist tradition.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top