A doctrine that lies in shambles in the hands of leftist parties is silently being resurrected by the Congress to energise its revival strategy in India’s Hindi belt. The idea, that is, of the ‘third front’ against the two main contenders, a political construct that the Left has used since the early 1990s to breathe down the neck of the grand old party. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the turmoil of that period nearly sent its prospects to the graveyard, the Congress is neither commander nor challenger. But it’s crawling back to form. So its best bet, it reckons, now lies in being the third alternative in these states.
This represents a bold break from its earlier practice of contesting Assembly elections either alone or as a subordinate ally of one of two dominant regional parties. It also explains its hot-spurred efforts in recent days to take along small parties as junior partners to make a credible bid for power in Lucknow and Patna. It is, after all, now firmly in the saddle at the Centre, and General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s quest for an outright majority in Parliament mostly depends on a Hindi vote bounce.
THE GOOD: JHARKHAND MODEL
There is already a template for a third front strategy. That the idea holds out promise for the Congress was shown by the Jharkhand Assembly election last December. This was the first Hindi belt state where the party dumped its long-term ally, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)—a main pole there, the other being the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—to forge a deal with the relatively obscure Jharkhand Vikas Manch (JVM), a regional outfit led by former CM Babulal Marandi. The third front that emerged thus was led by the Congress, which contested 55 of the Assembly’s 81 seats, leaving the rest for the JVM. It was a success. The Congress doubled its strength from seven wins in 2005 to 14 in 2009, while the debutant JVM got 11 seats. Together, they won 25 legislators—as against 18 of the JMM and 20 of the National Democratic Alliance (18 of the BJP and two of Janata Dal-United).
“Our combination in Jharkhand clicked,” K Keshav Rao, Congress leader in-charge of Jharkhand, tells Open, “Never did we have 25 MLAs in the state. While the Congress promised stability, in Babulal Marandi we got a credible face among tribals. Our alliance emerged as the largest block.”
According to sources, the Jharkhand experiment has emboldened the Congress not to entertain Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, and instead go for similar third fronts in the two crucial states. “This is a period of tricky transition for the Congress in the Hindi belt, where the party has to leave the periphery and create space for itself at the centre of politics,” says a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), “An alliance with either of the two dominant regional players would never allow the party to grab that spot. Only if the party is able to open up a third corner in these states can it really succeed in reviving itself.”
In UP, the Congress did well to get out of the SP’s shadow for the Lok Sabha polls last year. As all eyes now rest on the upcoming Assembly election in the state, due in early 2012, the Congress wants alliances with parties that have pockets of appeal in Uttar Pradesh, but no ambition of ruling Lucknow.
The Congress has identified three such parties in UP, disclose sources, and talks with them are on. On top of the list is Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which commands a sizeable Jat following in western UP. This party voted in favour of the Centre during the recent cut motion moved by the opposition against the Finance Bill, and even supported the Rajya Sabha candidature of the Congress’ Satish Sharma. There is word in the air that Ajit Singh may even get a Union Cabinet berth.
The alliance is already operational, say some, the only hitch being the Congress’ insistence on an RLD merger with itself. “If the merger happens, the Congress would at once get a huge base in western UP,” says the CWC member, “Even if the talks do not lead to a merger, the two parties will gain if they go to voters together in the Assembly elections.”
Apart from the RLD, the Congress is also in touch with RK Chaudhary, Rashtriya Swabhiman Party (RSP) leader and Mohanlalganj’s elected legislator. An RSP tie-up could bring in Passi votes from among Scheduled Castes, who the Congress has been desperate to regain; among them, Passis are outnumbered only by Jatavs, who make up the core vote base of UP Chief Minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
“I have had several rounds of talks with (Congress leader) Parvez Hashmi,” says Chaudhary, “About two months ago, I had gone to Delhi, where I met with (Congress General Secretary) Digvijaya Singh. Rita Bahuguna Joshi (UP Congress chief) and Parvez Hashmi were also present. The Congress’ merger proposal is not acceptable to me, although we can have an alliance with them in the Assembly elections.”
If Jats populate western UP, Passis have considerable presence in the state’s Awadh region, particularly in the Lucknow, Allahabad and Faizabad divisions. In fact, their numbers top the 40,000 mark in over 50 of the 403 Assembly constituencies in the state.
Another channel that the Congress has kept open is with the Peace Party, a fledgling political outfit that shot to fame about a month ago by drawing impressive votes from Muslims in the Dumariaganj byelection. The BSP won the seat, but the Peace Party candidate polled 17.7 per cent votes, well ahead of the Congress’ 12.9 per cent and SP’s 14.7 per cent. It was enough to rattle a Congress reliant on minority support as part of its revival gameplan. Sources say, it is the Peace Party’s ability to polarise Muslim votes in its favour that has forced the Congress to explore a partnership with it. “Though the two sides are yet to reach any mutually acceptable formula of alliance, the Congress does not want to leave any potent political force that could upset its calculations in the region,” says the CWC member.
THE BAD: BIHAR LOOSE END
Like UP, Bihar has also been the turf of regional parties. The difference is that the Congress is fast running out of time, with Assembly polls due this November and the party still waiting with bated breath for responses to feelers sent out. Unlike in UP, the scenario here is far more fluid, admit Congress insiders. No deal’s done yet. But dramatic shifts could yet occur. Ram Vilas Paswan, president of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), has been an ally of Lalu Prasad’s RJD, and this alliance remains intact—as Paswan categorically stated after his Rajya Sabha election with RJD help.
Yet, his flirtatious track record has kept a window of hope open for the Congress, which is eyeing his Dalit support base.
“Paswan has flirted with all major political players in the past, including the BJP and Left, besides the Congress and RJD,” says a senior Congress leader of Bihar, “Thus, even though he is presently working in tandem with Lalu Prasad, one cannot rule out the possibility of Paswan parting ways with him if he sees better prospects with the Congress.” It’s still unclear whether Paswan will play ball. What is certain is that the Congress needs a subordinate ally with a specific vote bank if it is to erect its third front.
THE DIFFICULT: PARTY INTERESTS
Will the new strategy work? And what of the Congress’ own long-term interests? Interestingly, the very concept of a third front has been subject to much Congress ridicule. When the Left cobbled together one such platform just before the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, after withdrawing support to the UPA-I Government over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, Congress leaders scoffed at it. “The third front is the biggest mirage of Indian politics. This is a ghost which appears every time in two or three years and then disappears,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari had told mediapersons then.
As a political doctrine, the third front emerged in the early 1990s as a Left-led secular vehicle to dislodge the Congress-versus-BJP bipolarity in national politics. The front even captured power at the Centre in the mid-1990s, but its 2009 electoral drubbing has only left Tewari’s words ringing in people’s ears.
In UP and Bihar, where the Congress finds itself in a similar tight spot, it is hoping it’s no mirage, even if politicians wonder if it’s just a tactical guile—until the goodies are safely in the saddlebags, and it re-sharpens its electoral aim.