When talk of the ‘Third Front’ started after the withdrawal of the Left’s support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), it represented the search for a political alternative to the politics and policies of both ‘national’ parties contending for power at the Centre. True, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) then was opposed to the nuclear deal but it was not too difficult to discern its sheer opportunism, particularly in view of its open and willing subservience to the United States hegemony in international power equations. And on economic policies, there was hardly any difference between BJP and its national rival. Although the nuclear deal, and more so, the strategic subordination to the United States was the immediate trigger, the withdrawal of support to the UPA Government by the Left and its moves towards the politics of coalition of like-minded parties opposed to both the BJP and the Congress constituted a historic response to the demands of the times.
The policies of UPA were inexorably moving the economy in the direction of greater interpersonal, inter-class and inter-regional inequalities. The threat to the livelihood of the vast masses of working people dependent on land and a land-based rural economy was becoming severer by months and years. The debt relief and better procurement prices provided clear benefits to surplus-generating farmers but that only increased the hiatus between the relatively better off farmers and the masses of small and marginal peasantry who constitute 92 per cent of the rural population and cultivate 43 per cent of land. More so, as the consumer price index was on the high side and rising, public services like education and health were becoming virtually non-existent in the rural side. The positive, though only palliative, effects of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) were not adequate to correct the basic imbalance. The social fabric was coming under increasing stress with the UPA government blithely mouthing the BJP language of ‘a serious threat to internal security’ and following a similar, insensitive, police-centric approach. The Congress governments in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi were continuing with blind and prejudiced methods of police excesses against the Muslim youth. And, in external relations, whether in relation to Nepal or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Sri Lanka or Iran or Palestine, the policy was always in tandem with the US global strategy. As the global financial crisis deepened, the UPA government was dutifully following the so-called G20 line whose policies celebrating deregulation of finance capital had, in the first place, triggered the crisis and whose remedial action consisted partly of a half-hearted attempt to bring in a degree of regulation belatedly, but mainly of a massive reimbursement of the losses of the finance capital at the cost of the public exchequer – a measure sure to build up an even greater financial disaster in times to come.
The conjuncture cried out for an alternative – an alternative set of political, social and economic policies. Policies which have the integrity, welfare and independence of the polity at their centre. Policies which will restore the confidence of the marginalised working people, the small and marginal peasantry, the
Dalits, the Adivasis, the craftsmen, the religious minorities, the most backward among the socially and educationally backward classes. It is this demand of the times which the political alternative was expected to answer. It cannot be seriously argued that all these challenges melted away in the face of the ‘youthful’ leadership and the façade of ‘integrity and competence’. Nor can it be said that the masses which were and are being victimised economically, socially and politically by the policies being pursued for years were suddenly persuaded to settle for the stability of those very policies.
Although the Left responded with clarity and determination to the strategic challenge posed by neo-imperialism, it was unclear and ambivalent when it came to the basic issues of livelihood, peasantry and land use.
The electoral debacle of the search for political alternatives has to be traced to the dire fact that the policy alternative was not spelt out clearly, nor presented credibly. The prevailing political conjuncture was quite different from apparently similar such situations in the past. Two such alternatives emerged in 1977 and 1989 around a largely non-Left, anti-Congress platform which itself had at its centre a charismatic personality providing the nucleus. The third such alternative which emerged in 1996 was a mix of Left and non-Left parties, distanced from Congress but not anti-Congress and had no charismatic nucleus.
The situation had changed dramatically in recent years, calling for a political alternative to the one-party system with two ‘Right Wings’ which seemed to be developing in the Indian political firmament. The alternative sought was not just about keeping Congress ‘out’ or ‘at a distance’ or keeping the communal forces represented by the Sangh Parivar at bay ‘at any cost’. Nor was there any charismatic personality providing the political glue. For the first time, the alternative, to have any meaning, had to be developed in terms of an alternative political agenda. The Left had, evidently in consultation with the constituents
of the then emerging alternative, articulated the basics of such an agenda: economic policy with equity and justice at its centre; independent foreign policy; federalism and secularism. But times demanded going beyond the basic concepts. They called for elaboration of a credible Common Minimum Programme (CMP). But unfortunately this task was left un-accomplished, and un-attempted.
This is not to say that some mechanical, verbal exercise of writing a CMP well in time before the polls would have done the trick. That kind of reasoning is political idiocy. What is necessary to grasp is that a political alternative to be credible must present a genuinely alternative agenda, more so if it does not
happen to have a charismatic nucleus providing the political glue. A failure to do this was only partly due to the fact that the exercise of forging a political alternative started a little too late and was falling behind the call of times.
Weak and Tentative Left
More fundamentally, the root of this failure lay in the fact that the Left which did start responding to this call was burdened with the baggage of its internal contradictions. Although it responded with clarity and determination to the strategic challenge posed by neo-imperialism, it was unclear and ambivalent when it came to the basic issues of livelihood, peasantry and land use. While it took up the cause of secularism and, in particular, the excesses against the Muslim youth, it was still ill-at-ease in forming close liaisons and building open and visible joint platforms with the agitated legions of the Muslim youth, in Delhi, in Uttar Pradesh, in Mumbai and in Hyderabad. It was weak and tentative in regard to the Dalit constituency. And finally, the Adivasi constituency was largely allowed to be appropriated by the far Left and the Maoists.
No real political alternative can be expected to emerge without the mobilisation of the agents of transformation. The small and marginal peasantry, the landless workers, the forest-dwelling Adivasis being dispossessed of their sources of livelihood and habitat, the craftsmen being thrown out of their workplaces and forced to become unskilled labourers, and the petty producers in rural and urban areas increasingly being exposed to the strain of the rising cost of living and the threat of extinction looming large due to the growing presence of the large corporate sector, constitute the vast majority of working people at the worst end of the policies being pursued over the last 18 years. For that very reason, they constitute the potential transformative agents. The large chunks of the self same masses are designated by the more popular political shorthand of Dalits, Adivasis and the Muslim minority. Although the latter categorisation is apparently un-Marxian, these categories are part of the objective reality forced upon us by history. Forging a political alternative
requires not only shedding aversion to this political shorthand but positive championing of their causes. The mainstream Left has still a long way to go in this direction. To make matters worse, issues related to livelihood, peasantry and land use were left to be handled by the state government of West Bengal in an inept manner no different from that practised by other state administrations openly pursuing the neo-liberal economic policies that had eroded significantly the credibility of the Left’s leading role in forging the political alternative.
The net result in electoral terms was that the critical mass of the agents of transformation could not be mobilised in favour of the political alternative. This failure was dramatically manifested in two ways. First, the Muslim minority which has the history of effective participation in the secular, democratic process through strategic voting in the elections was obviously far from convinced that the Third Front would be in a position to provide a political alternative at the Centre. Hence, the indifference of the Muslim voters to the ‘Third Front’ candidates and their preference, by default, for the Congress candidates, particularly in the critical states of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.
Secondly, the Left particularly CPM, suffered a huge loss of parliamentary seats in its fortresses.
Relevance of Third Front
If this reasoning is valid, the obvious lesson to be drawn is not that the days of the ‘Third Front’ politics are over and the Indian masses are left with only the Hobson’s choice of voting for one of the ‘two right wings’ of the ‘one party system’ of the ruling class. On the contrary, the need for forging a political alternative is more relevant today than ever in the past. The Left, which took the initiative to move towards such an alternative in response to the call of history, howsoever inadequate, ill-prepared and belated the move in effect turned out to be, must not wince. The historic task of forging the political alternative would also require the structured, mainstream Left parties to look beyond their organisations and tap the vast reservoir of the genuine sympathisers and co-travellers on the road to Socialism, may they be in the recognisable and non-recognisable remnants of the once-powerful Socialist movement or in the dispersed voluntary sector. And of course, the Left parties must seriously move towards unification, which in itself will send a resounding message of impending resurgence of the Left Movement.