Afraid of the Third Front? – By Jayanti Ghosh – The Asian Age

http://www.asianage.com/presentation/leftnavigation/opinion/op-ed/afraid-of-the-third-front.aspx




Afraid of the Third Front?

 

Jayati Ghosh

April.28 : India is a complex and diverse country, with many different loyalties and identities driving the aspirations and actions of its citizens. It is also a country in which — fortunately — electoral democracy is deeply entrenched, and difficult to dislodge, with ever growing numbers of people aware of their rights and deeply committed to casting their votes.

It is therefore not surprising that the electoral process — and electoral outcomes especially in the recent past — reflect both such diversity as well as processes of change. As the political churning in India continues apace, it is likely that it will throw up newer and different combinations of parties in power. These are not necessarily results that should cause concern or fear. Rather, they are signs of a national polity that is emerging out of an immensely complicated reality, in a process that has taken several other countries much longer (often as much as a century) to complete.

This process cannot and should not follow the same pattern as the US or UK models, with two major parties alternately contending for and attaining power, because the reality of India is so very different and places such varied requirements upon central governments. Indeed, the middle class yearning for a simple binary division of the polity is completely misplaced in India. It ignores the very reasons why regional and smaller parties have come up at all, and thereby denies the genuine democratic aspirations of most people.

Coalition politics is both necessary and inevitable in India at the current juncture not only because of this diversity, but because of the very obvious failures and apparent of the two major parties. Indeed, just looking at national vote shares of the different parties in the last few elections shows how the electorate is increasingly rejecting this binary division.

The Congress Party, because of its role in the national movement, had emerged after Independence as the default national party, able for a relatively prolonged period to dominate the national political spectrum and particularly the Central government, even though other parties managed to grow sufficiently to set up state governments. But there has been a continuous decline in its national presence. From the peak in 1984 when the wave of sympathy caused by the assassination of Indira Gandhi gave it 46.1 per cent of the national vote, the share has dropped to 26.5 per cent in 2004. It controls only a small minority of state governments.

Every government that has formed at the Centre since 1989 has been a coalition of many parties, and several have been minority governments dependent upon outside support, including the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. So the days of one party rule by the Congress are clearly over, whether this is accepted by the Party or not.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) until recently benefited the most from the Congress’ decline, but even the BJP this far has not managed to cross much more than a quarter of the national vote — its peak vote share (in 1998) was 25.6 per cent, and it has declined since then.

These two parties claim to be very different, and certainly it is true that the Congress still claims its secular credentials in opposition to the BJP’s politics of hate and fear, which still underlie the latter’s ideology despite all the moderate masks it seeks to adopt on different occasions. It is also true the BJP is definitely the greater evil, given that its divisive politics actually sows the seeds of more violence and insecurity for the country as a whole. Yet it is also remarkable how similar these two parties have been in government, in terms of economic policies and centralising tendencies.

They have both chosen to follow neoliberal economic policies that have dramatically increased economic inequalities, caused widespread agrarian distress and made material lives more fragile and insecure for most workers. It is true that since the current Congress-led UPA government was dependent upon outside support from the Left, it did bring in some positive and pro-people measures such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). But the basic neoliberal urge was still very evident.

Also both parties — despite being involved in coalition governments that depend upon inside or outside support from smaller and regional parties — have been extremely centralising in terms of concentrating various powers in their own hands, dictating economic terms to the state governments and forcing conditionalities that impose the same neoliberal policies upon the state governments in return for resource transfer in the form of centrally-sponsored schemes. Along with this, it is increasingly evident that both parties are hand in glove with imperialism, in ways that directly impact upon the security and sovereignty of the nation.

Since these are finally the features that affect most of the Indian people directly and indirectly, it is not surprising that these policies have not gone down well with the electorate and have further accentuated the tendency of decline of these two parties.

Things have come to such a pass that it is currently being widely predicted that these two parties together will not get even half of the total votes in the current general elections. So the claim of these two parties being the main relevant national parties is increasingly open to question.

That leaves a varied collection of parties with very different bases, perceptions, identities, ideals, political strategies and forms of organisation and mobilisation. Some of these parties have been, or continue to be associated with fronts, formed by one or the other of the two large parties. But the current evidence of the disintegration of these fronts is not without significance: it indicates that the smaller parties recognise that the role and power of these larger parties is likely to be further constrained in future.

It is obviously both unrealistic and premature to expect that such a diverse grouping (or even a large subset of this grouping) can immediately form a coherent and viable political front that is separate from the two main parties. Yet such a front is both desirable and ultimately inevitable, which is why the Left parties have already invested so much time and effort in working towards such an outcome. After all, these parties have become significant because they express and articulate the genuine concerns and aspirations of substantial sections of voters, and therefore they cannot be denied their space. And because several of them gain their political legitimacy from those who are reacting against unequal and centralising economic policies, they must eventually express this in their own economic strategies.

What is also significant is that many of them find political legitimacy among the bulk of people who have been adversely affected by neoliberal economic policies: workers and peasants, students and self-employed, those searching for jobs and those working at multiple jobs to make ends meet.

We need a Central government that acts to bring such people relief and improve their future prospects. Obviously, in creating such a government, a critical role will be played by the Left whether or not it actually joins the government.

This does not mean that simply forming such a government will rid the polity and economy of the various vices and weaknesses that currently dominate. And it is also very likely that such a government may be unstable and prone to dissolve or change because of contending pressures from the various elements in it. But this should be seen as part of a longer political process in which the legitimate demands of a federal polity and of the masses of people are sought to be met. Such a process is not always smooth and seamless; indeed it is likely to be as chaotic and colourful as Indian democracy itself. It does not make the process any less relevant or necessary.

The emergence of a viable third alternative in Indian politics is therefore a matter of historical inevitability. We should not be afraid of heterogenous political groupings, as long as they share the basic agenda of improving the lot of the common people.

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