Vidya Subrahmaniam in an insightful article in The Hindu argues that there has never been a genuine third political alternative in india (apart from the Congress and the Jan Sangh/BJP) and is unlikely to arise out of the current crop of a large number of small regional parties that comprise the "Other Parties". But I think there could be a silver lining to the cloud, that is as yet invisible. But I'm leaping ahead of myself. First let's see what the numbers say.
Subrahmaniam considers the following data on the percentage of seat and vote shares in parliament from 1952 up until 2004 (the source for the data isn't mentioned) and looks at the share of seats and votes of the Congress and the Jan Sangh/BJP together and compares it to the share of the Other Parties.
The data indicates that we seem to be heading towards a balance with close to half the seats going to Other Parties and the other half to both the Congress and Jan Sangh/BJP put together (see the share of the Other Parties in blue in the graph below).
Even if the Congress and the BJP combined together, they may at best have just a marginal marjority of seats. The absence of a huge difference between the share of their combined votes and and their combined seats in recent years as opposed to the 1950-70 period (above graph) seems to indicate that the balance of seats between the Other Parties and the Congress-Jan Sangh/BJP combine is here to stay.
Aside: Meghnad Desai has been suggesting for some time now that a grand BJP-Congress coalition would be best for India and could deliver 8% growth, but its extremely unlikely that such a coalition could happen. Despite that, Harkishan Singh Surjeet of the CPI(M) sees Desai's suggestion as a diabolical plan - "a British national like Lord Meghnad Desai had had the temerity to suggest that the Congress and BJP should form a "grand alliance" on the question of (so-called) reforms. Now, irrespective of whether such an alliance materialises or not, the very fact that such a suggestion was made shows the pressures international finance capital is seeking to bring on Indian parties and political system."
As Subrahmaniam asks,
So what are the realistic chances that the third alternative will become the first choice? The answer is built into the question. The first requirement of power is a simple majority. The potential partners must be able on their own to win 272 or more seats in a House of 543. Put another way, a non-Congress, non-BJP government can come about only when the combined strength of prospective third front constituents exceeds the combined tally of the Congress and the BJP.
As an idea, the third front is incomparable, aligned as it is to the genius, diversity, and contradictions of the Indian polity. By contrast the mainline parties represent a unitary vision that is hierarchy-bound and resistant to change. The third alternative, at least in theory, comprises forces that have historically fought the status quo: in that sense it is inherently federal in spirit and more naturally inclined towards social justice. However, for the very reason that many of the "alternative" players have come up the hard way, they also tend to be authoritarian and opportunistic. There is little internal democracy in the parties run by Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, and Jayalalithaa. As for opportunism, Kanshi Ram once famously defended this attribute in the Bahujan Samaj Party. If seizing opportunities was opportunism, he was proud to be an opportunist, the BSP leader said. Indeed, purists may cavil at the BSP's frequent and "unprincipled" alliances with its "manuwadi" foe but the fantastic growth graph of Ms. Mayawati's party is proof that the Hindutva taint caused it no harm.
So we face a multiplicity of inter-related problems here, starting with the impatience of the regional and marginal players to access power - which is seen as the swiftest route to influence and growth. This involves making short-term alliances and compromises, which, however, dilute the ideological cohesion vital for the viability of any alternative front. Thus, third front unity has invariably been transitory, achieved not to implement a collective, long-term vision but as a momentary response to one or another political challenge. And since this challenge always came from either the Congress or the BJP, the third front inevitably became a second front that took the support of the Jan Sangh/BJP to oppose the Congress, and then the support of the Congress to oppose the BJP.
And when [the third front] does [come into play], the front will have many hurdles to negotiate. If India's 14 Lok Sabhas tell a story, it is that the third front is not an easy alternative. Even assuming the combined Congress-BJP strength falls short of 272 in a future Lok Sabha, an autonomous third front government will not materialise unless all other parties miraculously unite. This means the BSP and the SP have to bury the hatchet; this means the allies of the BJP and the Congress (most of whom are bound to these parties in the States) have to be ready to strike out on their own. Can the Janata Dal(U), the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena afford to snap their links with the BJP? Can Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad, Shibu Soren, and M. Karunanidhi decide they do not need the Congress in their respective States?
The answer to Subrahmaniam's rhetorical question is self-evident. Given the regional nature of those that make up the Other Parties, their opportunism, and their differences in ideology, priorities and more, a third front indeed seems like a mirage.
So where is the hidden silver lining to the cloud, you may ask. I think it lurks just beneath in the form of an opportunity for an altogether fresh pan-Indian party based on a well articulated ideology and vision.
If the Indian National Congress which started out in the 1880s, in an era
- that had no pan-Indian organisation whatsoever,
- when the Government of the day was all powerful
- when illiteracy and poverty were widespread
- when newspapers were just starting up and had limited influence
- that lacked all the communication appurtenances of today's world like radio, television, mobile phones and the Internet to be able to communicate ideas
could go on to mobilise public opinion and support, keep growing and evolving to finally achieve its primary objective, why shouldn't a similar effort to start a new pan-Indian party today have more than a fair chance of success? I think the odds are very good for the success of such an effort.
But it is unlikely that any such party starting out today will be able to win elections at the national level for at least 20-30 years, maybe longer. Politics is a long term activity. Indeed, just as the Indian National Congress took a good 62 years from 1885 to 1947 to succeed in its primary objective, changing leaders along the way, changing strategies and focus along the way, a new party starting today will have to look at a 20-30 year horizon at the least, to win an election at the national level and be in a position to unfold its vision for the country, which itself will have to evolve. In the first 20 years, the new party will have to go through an institution building phase and aim to
- articulate the basic principles and ideology on which the party is founded in a clear and simple manner
- open a chapter in every single constituency in the nation - a local presence is a must
- actively recruit members from all sections of society in every constituency
- have an active media strategy not just in English, but in every Indian language, to promote the party's ideology and brand across all media, and articulate the party's stance on various issues
- go on an aggressive, but transparent, fund raising drive and raise funds from individuals and corporations
- run a web site and a series of shadow blogs for each ministerial portfolio at the state and national levels and take a stance on all important issues and lobby with the government
- hold periodic (monthly) meetings of members in each constituency and organise public lectures by experts in various fields
- bring out a monthly newsletter on email and in print
- identify suitable candidates and run for office in every single constituency in every election at every level, from the local body elections all the way up to the parliamentary elections, to build credibility, commitment and visibility for the party as well as its candidates for office
The real questions facing us today are the following. Who/where are the political entrepreneurs who can start and run such a pan-Indian party today, with a long term perspective? Many of those who start it out today may not be around to taste the fruits of their efforts 20 years later, like Gokhale and others who started the Indian National Congress in 1885. Will those who are in a position to start out today be able to groom the next generation of leaders and pass on the baton to them with the flame still glowing bright, for them to take the ideology and vision onward?
In an previous post, I'd looked at who these potential political entrepreneurs could be and where their following could come from in the intial stages.