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Tridivesh Singh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst, and his research interests include Indo-Pak relations, the role of border states in India's foreign policy and the New Silk Road. He was formerly a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.

The Third Front: Why Skeptics and Proponents are Both Wrong

Tridivesh Singh Maini
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As opinion polls predict fluctuating fortunes for the two major national parties, the BJP and the Congress, in the 2014 polls, Tridivesh Singh Maini, a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre, explores the idea of a Third Front, and points out the signs that suggest that the formation of this alternative is neither improbable nor smooth-sailing.

With the 2014 elections around the corner, a number of forecasts have come out. While some pre-poll surveys do give an edge to the BJP over the Congress, it seems that the saffron party will have to gain immense momentum over the next few months to be in a position to cobble together the numbers for forming a government. A survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in November gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a tally of 175 seats and the National Democratic Alliance, which includes two of the BJP allies, Shiv Sena and Akali Dal, a total of 191 seats. The same survey gave the Congress-led UPA alliance 138 seats. According to the survey, the Congress will get around 120 seats while it’s allies, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Rashtriya Lok Dal will muster up around 18 seats between them.

Due to this lack of clarity, many are not ruling out the possibility of a Third Front government, which could be headed by a regional satrap. While this expression is used frequently to describe a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative, there are numerous shortcomings in the arguments of both proponents and opponents of such an arrangement.

Where Critics of a Third Front are Not Convincing

If one were to first discuss the deficiencies of the arguments against such a coalition, the first opposition to such a front is on the basis that there is no common agenda and that a grouping of regional leaders will be bereft of a genuine pan-India vision.

What opponents of such a front forget is that the Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP, Narendra Modi, is a regional leader as well, and apart from the fact that he belongs to a national party, it could be argued that there are other regional satraps such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa who themselves have a reasonably sound governance record. While Mr. Kumar has been credited with being responsible in a turnaround for Bihar due to his focus on infrastructure and law and order in the State, Ms. Jayalalithaa’s welfare schemes, especially the idea of ‘Amma Canteens’ set up by the Chennai Corporation providing food at a subsidised rate, have been lauded as being a timely and affordable initiative , particularly for a large number of migrant workers in the city amid soaring inflation.

Apart from local governance issues, most Chief Ministers have a reasonable understanding of external relations, especially in the economic realm. Although Mr. Modi hogs the limelight due to the Annual Global Investors summit, if one were to look at the record of Tamil Nadu, it still receives more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) than Gujarat. (As per available official figures of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion of the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the pattern of FDI equity inflows in 2011-12, shows Tamil Nadu attracted US dollars 1,422 million against Gujarat’s US dollars 1,001 million; but in terms of Investment Intentions for the succeeding year 2012-13 (up to now), Gujarat seems to have an edge over Tamil Nadu).

Similarly, while Mr. Modi’s outreach to the outside world receives more coverage, it would be pertinent to point out that Mr. Kumar too has reached out not just to neighbouring countries such as Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan, but has also dealt with South East Asian countries, including Singapore and Japan, as both are involved in the Nalanda University project.

Ms. Jayalalithaa has received more attention for the firm stand she has taken on India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has repeatedly stated that India is excessively soft on Colombo and should do more to safeguard the rights of the Tamil minority in the neighbouring country. In this context, Ms. Jayalalithaa has taken a number of steps, which many believe have had an adverse impact on New Delhi-Colombo ties. They include increasing pressure on New Delhi to vote against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, sending back a team of Sri Lankan footballers touring Tamil Nadu and, more recently, urging the Indian Prime Minister not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held at Colombo — he did give CHOGM a miss.

Due to Tamil Nadu’s commercial ties with other parts of the world, Ms. Jayalalitha has also had the opportunity to deal with political delegations from other parts of the world. In 2011, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it a point to meet Ms. Jayalalithaa and discuss a gamut of economic and political issues. So, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu too would surely have some understanding of diplomacy.

Finally, those opposed to a Third Front are quick to state that such a coalition would be a disaster for the economic condition of the country. They forget that two such governments — H.D. Deve Gowda (1996-1997) and I.K. Gujral (1997-1998) — may have not been stable but were not disasters either. Economic reforms introduced in 1991 were continued with and the current Union Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, occupied the same position in both these Cabinets, presenting reasonably progressive budgets.

What Proponents of a Third Front Forget

Let us now examine some of the shortcomings of the arguments in favour of such an alternative. The first argument is that such a coalition will inevitably need support of either of the national parties. In such a situation, it cannot really be dubbed an alternative to either the Congress or the BJP. Past experience clearly shows that arrangements banking on a national party for support have not lasted long due to excessive dependence on them.

Secondly, while the issue that is likely to bring these regional parties together is secularism, many of these were allies of the NDA in the past. This includes the JD (U) and the AIADMK. In any case, such a front cannot last long if its ambition is to keep the BJP out of power. There has to be a common agenda on economic and political issues. One such issue could be strengthening federalism. So far, none of the regional leaders, who could be part of such a front, have articulated their vision for this alternative. Such a front gives the impression of not just being opportunistic, but also a stopgap arrangement.

Thirdly, many of the potential constituents do not see eye to eye. Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress will find it tough to be part of a front which also accommodates the Left. Similarly, former Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the leader of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, may not find it easy to support a coalition, though they have both lent outside support to the current UPA regime.

Both critics and proponents of a Third Front need to remove their blinkers with regard to such a formation. Critics need to realise that decentralisation of Indian polity is a reality, while the national parties too need to do some introspection with regard to their decline. Supporters need to lay out a more cohesive vision for such an alternative.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst, and his research interests include Indo-Pak relations, the role of border states in India's foreign policy and the New Silk Road. He was formerly a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.)

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Sorry to say, your writing looked like a CV of sorts. It is common knowledge that the Tamil have solidarity pan world of issues that concern them. This is good in a regional scale but not on a national level. Jayalalithaa's canteens and all that sops are not governance, but hand outs which will fail in the long run. Nitish Kumar lacks the charisma, the appeal and reach of Modi. Only Pranab had it, but he was kicked upstairs, a bad move that the Congress may ponder over. Chidambaram is good but ineffective. India is not yet ready for regional parties. In another 15-20 years, it will be time to disband this central parties. What you have missed out is sitting as the opposition will do the Congress a lot of good. It will weed out all fringe participants and get the core working without the burden of governance and coalition. I will vote for Modi and BJP not because I think he is panacea to all ills, but because I do not want the congress at any cost.

from:  Hari Kumar
Posted on: Dec 3, 2013 at 19:00 IST

The so called leaders in Third Front are the forerunners for the post of the Prime Minister, which has to be noted. Whether Mulayam Singh or Jayalalithaa or Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik, they all think that they deserve the post. Of course, Mayavati and Mamata Banerjee are also in the race. When such is the case, how do we expect consensus, leave alone good governance? It is always better to elect a national party if possible. It would be the best choice!

from:  Raghavendra Rao
Posted on: Dec 3, 2013 at 17:31 IST

The Third Front has always been a non-starter in Indian politics. It has never been accepted as a Third Front by the public but only as an affront by the public at large. Especially in Tamil Nadu, only Communists can lead the Third Front, and if major political parties offer 2 seats - one in Coimbatore and another at Nagapattinam, they will abandon and join either of the fronts. When this is state of mind of political parties, how will the existence of a Third Front be possible?

from:  Hariharan N
Posted on: Dec 3, 2013 at 11:27 IST

Third front can only mean disaster for the country. 1) Foreign Policy: One party would propose good relations with Pakistan even at the cost of national interests. On the other hand, another group would be ready to surrender country's integrity for better relations with China. 2) Economic Policy: There are wide differences on the development plank and other economic policies between these parties. 3) Some parties have a separate policy on Sri Lanka than the broader national policy. 4) Some parties totally differ on their approach towards the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and other backward classes. There are many other factors which keeps these parties away from each other. So it will be suicidal for the country if the Third Front comes in the power after 2014 general Elections.

from:  Ashok Gupta
Posted on: Dec 2, 2013 at 20:03 IST

If the Third Front come into existence, they will destroy the entire country in 10 months. We have to have a two-party election in our country, the rest can fight elections in their respective states, but not for the Centre. That will be a disaster for this great nation.

from:  umesh
Posted on: Dec 2, 2013 at 17:32 IST

The opinion poll on the television channel Times Now had given 240 seats to "Others", which includes Communists and the regional parties put together. The Third Front has a realistic chance of forming the Government as a Narendra-Modi led NDA will not attract allies post elections. The likes of Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik will not risk their minority vote for a few cabinet berths. They had done so earlier when a moderate Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the helm, but Modi is an altogether different personality, and he will deal with them from a position of strength, which will not be to their liking. The Third Front will in all probability take support from a weakened Congress which will be much easier to deal with than a resurgent BJP under Modi. However, the sticky problem is to work out a formula to keep Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, Mamata and the Communists in the same camp. The author has mentioned Jayalalithaa's welfare schemes, but Tamil Nadu has a long history of such schemes as was mentioned by Amartya Sen himself.

from:  C Balachander
Posted on: Dec 2, 2013 at 13:58 IST

Excellent analysis. But one will have to wait and watch what transpires in the General Elections of 2014.

from:  Shahabuddin Nadeem
Posted on: Dec 2, 2013 at 10:19 IST

Political instability makes India weak. Major national parties that get absolute majority is good for the great nation. A third front (selfish, power hungry politicians) gives room for separative forces so India needs any national party to get a majority.

from:  Krishna
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 20:01 IST

Indeed an impressive article about the problems that will arise when creating a third front. But none of the above said potential leaders of the third front have established their pan India vision and are not taking any substantial initiative to make a third front a reality.

from:  Arun Pandiyan Sundaram
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 16:35 IST

Regional parties have done their best to retain their position against the national parties. What did the third front missed out on? While trying to keep the national parties away in each of its states, they didn't have a national level plan. For example: Modi's elevation as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Similarly, third front should have started with their internal caucus to elect a leader among them, so that they have a national level platform, focused effort to take on the national parties, and to hold on to their own states as well. We can except more and more leaders joining this effort to remove the status quo of the national parties.

from:  Krishnakumar G.
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 14:07 IST

The Janata Party could not remain united. To think of regional satraps at the helm of affairs would be disastrous because personal agendas over takes National Agenda.

from:  R Jayaram
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 13:47 IST

Wonderful and very honest article.

from:  Arvind Bhandari
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 06:37 IST

The decline of the national parties can be attributed to the absence of internal democracy in them; this is particularly true of the Congress Party. The selection of candidates for elections is often done on the ability of the candidate to gain the patronage of the party's central leadership rather than his standing among the electors! Unless these parties evolve a transparent, democratic way of identifying the right candidates, their decline would continue. A third front with a common minimum program is necessary and that should be cobbled up before the elections, not after. They should be able to project their core philosophy and a prime ministerial candidate so that the electorate can make its choice. It is necessary they should be allotted a common symbol by the Election Commission by relaxing their time-worn rules in this regard. It would however be in the interests of the country if Modi and Nitish Kumar can come together by realising the historic necessity!

from:  anjaneya reddy
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 04:52 IST

Third front at the center is still a dream.If it comes in power at center it is going to create political instability what we have witnessed during Mr. davegoda & Mr. Gujral govt. & the principal reason behind this is lack of support,vested interest of each political party,& political & regional diversity.it is posing a great question that even though we have largest democracy in world & coalition govt is replica of this,then why we have not seen its positive face yet.If coalition govt with one National party(Congress or BJP) comes in power then also we can not expect big change because politics which was once defined as penance for politician(its a selfless duty to nation) has now transformed to a cunning game where everyone tries to carve out his own interest.well in my opinion there should be single party Govt. instead of multiparty,at least you can expect of political stability & also head of govt. may work without any allied party(unnecessary) pressure.

from:  albert
Posted on: Dec 1, 2013 at 00:05 IST

Going by the trend of opinion polls and the general mood and temper of people, it is almost certain that
neither NDA nor UPA would get clear majority in 2014 polls. Thus, as rightly pointed out by the writer,
the debate on the scope of the formation of 'Third front' emerges, There is no dispute on the fact that
leaders like Nitish kumar and Jayalalitha have proved their mettle as able Chief Ministers; perhaps
better than Narendra Modi in the areas of social justice and human development mechanisms. Be it
economic planning or external affairs or diplomacy or international issues, these leaders have much
acumen and exposure fit to head the nation. But, the crucial question is whether the regional satraps
can select a consensus leader to head the coalition?. In the present political context, the answer is 'no' .
The possibility is that some of these parties of the proposed third front may align with the front securing
maximum seats. That gives more confidence to Modi.

from:  K V Thomas
Posted on: Nov 30, 2013 at 22:53 IST

Well we all know that coalition government is most democratic form of govt. but we have not seen its positive face yet.Theoretically it reflects high aspirations of democratic country & its people,but here in India it has been highly politicized & concerned politicians have made it their profit & loss game for ex; Demand made by Ms. Mamata Banerjee for Railway Ministry(condition for support to UPA govt.) Similar demand made by Mr. Nitish Kumar during NDA govt.One more disadvantage of this coalition govt. we have seen in past & present govt is lack of control of head over its allied parties & its leaders resulting in lots of scams & scandals.we can not see positive outcome of this coalition era untill politicians put national interest ahead of their personal interest.As far as third front is concerned we are going to face similar problems with it also what we have faced with UPA-2 in fact more political instability would be seen.

from:  ALOK SINGH
Posted on: Nov 30, 2013 at 22:49 IST

Excellent Analysis. But one will have to wait & watch what is ultimately going to transpire in the
Gen.Elections of 2014

from:  Shahabuddin Nadeem
Posted on: Nov 30, 2013 at 20:54 IST
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