First, Second or Third (Front) – What’s the difference!

April 17, 2009

Much has been written about the imminent arrival in New Delhi of the Third Front, the joker in the Indian political pack that has talked itself up as a serious alternative to the two national parties in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The difference they tout is of being more inclusive, bringing into the public fold social groups neglected or oppressed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Whether this claim, that some take rather very seriously, is sustainable is the moot question. The answer may be no, if the history of this rag-tag group that has emerged with near-decadal precision since 1967 is any guide.

The rise of these parties was part of a process of the broadening of Indian democracy, bringing into the public sphere middle and lower castes, religious minorities and tribals in their own right.

But this broadening has not completely gone hand in hand with it a deepening of democracy, empowering these traditionally subordinate groups.

Rather, critics argue it has become the cultural equivalent of the failed trickle-down theory in economics, bringing immediate benefits to the elite amongst them, entrenching some at the cost of others and widening social disparities.

The Congress party, ruling India uninterruptedly for the first three decades of independence, had as its power-base the landed elite, and its relationship with the subordinate groups was that of a patron and a client.

As some of these groups prospered economically from increased agricultural incomes, they began demanding a larger share in the public sphere. These groups were largely of the middle castes — what is today termed Other Backward Classes in official parlance — and comprised petty landowners and peasant proprietors.

Their aspirations were tapped by the various socialist parties which traced their roots to the left-leaning factions of the pre-independent Congress, factions that had actively led peasant movements in the 1920s and the 1930s.

It was also this upsurge that led these parties to implement job reservations for the Other Backward Classes — the official parlance for these castes — in the states they ruled, much before 1990 when New Delhi made it a national law.

But where they failed was to build upon this silent revolution to ensure a fundamental change in the role of the state as patron doling out (limited) resources. They did not ensure a process of economic redistribution that would benefit all.

Rather, many analysts argue they followed a policy that redirected resources to groups that had reaped the benefits of reservations, and had entrenched themselves as a new elite.

Separated thus from the ideological motivations that gave them birth and nurtured them, critics say most of these parties exist solely for the perpetuation of the cult of the leader and their policies are simply to ensure the dominance of groups that back them.

If one adjective had to be used for the motley crew of the Front, it may be “pragmatic.” The argument goes that it makes no difference to any one of them if India became a client state of the United States or of Tanzania or whether monetary policy is biased towards maintaining growth or containing inflation.

Each of them has slept with almost everyone else, supported policies across the spectrum, bonded with reformists, communists, communalists, secularists, pseudo-secularists, appeasers, all the various other terminological curiosities that pepper the Indian political glossary.

It is this pragmatism that may ease any fears of these parties. There might be degrees of accepting a globalised and liberalised world, but none of them have lost much sleep over ideology or practice, or would be averse to being gently nudged towards that direction.

(Reuters file photos of labourers standing at a road construction site in Bihar (Top) and a policeman keeping guard as voters queue up to cast their votes outside a polling station in Patna in the 2004 general elections)


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Well said. The Third Front is indeed a “rag-tag” group of proven opportunists, each with a ‘whatever I can get’ agenda.

Posted by Rajkrishnan Menon | Report as abusive

The difference between the Fronts is India may not trust the Third Front in power by itself. Pragmatism is a fine thing as long as a party is in coalition with a major player such as Congress or the BJP. But the Third Front on its own? Forget the slowdown, India has been a booming economy for years. It has healthy ties with the U.S. now and scored a big diplomatic victory with the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. Some may shudder if a Mayawati, or a Prakash Karat, sends a rising world power into reverse gear.

Posted by Seething Lane | Report as abusive

The manner in which the historical roots of the parties that constitute the Third Alternative is indeed lucid and helps place the present in context. An excellent analysis.

Posted by krishna | Report as abusive

Good analysis. The third front is a group with a checkered history, and your article makes the point quite well. Look forward to reading more from you here.

Posted by Ayush Gupta | Report as abusive

Very interesting read. Given the history of the Third Front, it’s unlikely anyone would consider it a seriously contender in these, or any, elections.

Posted by Marilyn | Report as abusive

Truly said, third front is just a marriage of convenience. And as far as ideology is concerned, does any political party in India has one? Ideology here is a direct derivative of vote bank which has roots in caste politics.

Posted by R.S. | Report as abusive

Isn’t it also an open secret that the members of the Third Front are as corrupt as those of the other “fronts”? And I wonder how much real change their coming to power will bring about except probably bring the “real” India out to the world.

Posted by scout | Report as abusive

Imagine a government PM as Mayawati and Finance held at Karat with Defense with Mulayam and Foregin Affairs Sitaram Yechury. Well what a beautiful wild Imagination for 3rd and 4th front and a nightmare for Congress and BJP (I think they both will commit political suicide after this)But tats not the truth infect they become more stronger from its past.

Some time i Thought in current Scenario India need a change as world is also looking for it US has proved that It need a change. Why .? Because only a change can spell that whether is it good or Bad. Let Us given them a chance and watch whether they can handle and administrate this country better than Congress of BJP. Let us see whether regionalism , caste ism, leftism really can help this country in any sense where a govt of many allies complies of regional parties had influence at their own state but rule the country at center as one.

May be this help country and its people at large extent growth reach to needy people and every region and individual get the share of progress cake. But if it not all happen what will be the next .??

Nothing Our people at least came to know that to rule a country we need a organization who spread across INDIA and think for INDIA Work for INDIA. At least for the Namesake they will come and unite and fight for this so called cause of casteism spread by lalu mulayam in south all parties and regionalism infected at core in south India spreading in eastern part and Jharkhand.

At least for the sake of this country let us try once this 3rd and 4th front so that picture must be clear about their goal and capacity rather than they become spoiler in every election.

2 option if they did well vote them if not threw them out from the system. And Think for INDIA not for region language caste or any new stupid idea of separatism.

I firmly believe congress forced to come politics of regionalism casteism otherwise core congress till Shastri Ji is think only for PAN INDIA. unfortunate BJP still not make good efforts to reach eastern part of country and open some account in south.

True speaking We need BOTH congress and BJP to Strengthn at Center so that at least they do some real business for the benefit of our land whom we called INDIA.

Believe me What Chaulikya (Chankya) Says -” AKAND BHARATA UTKRISTH BAHRATA” if happen there is no power in this world who can defeat us not even in OlYMPICS …..

Posted by Amit Daga | Report as abusive

Good analysis. The third front exists only in name for power one way or the other. It does not even exist as of now.

Posted by shriya | Report as abusive

It is a well elucidated analysis. Guess one will have to wait and watch. Quoting from an EPW article ‘The Left and the Third Front’ by Pritam Singh:

“Although there is a positive potential
for building a viable third front in India,
there are also great hurdles in calibrating
the politics of the three currents of this potential
third front – the left, the regional
nationalist parties and the lower caste

If a progressive third front does
not emerge in India, and the BJP and the
Congress remain the only two alternative
poles of politics, the centre of gravity of
Indian politics will move towards more
Hindutva-oriented politics than it is today.

The task of opposing the BJP and winning
over some sections of the BJP support base
will force the Congress to adopt some elements
of Hindutva politics. From the opposite
side, the BJP – in order to expand its
electoral appeal – might moderate its Hindutva
agenda. As a result of this two-party
competitive political scenario, each party
will influence the other’s politics.

However,since the BJP is ideologically more
committed to a long-term vision of building
a Hindu India than the Congress is
committed to a long-term vision of secular
India, the net result of the Congress-BJP
competition will be a shift towards some
version of Hindutva politics in India.

A third front can subvert this scenario of
Hindu-oriented political culture. A third
front based on an agenda of egalitarianism
and decentralisation can decisively change
the terms of political discourse and mobilisation
away from this possible drift
towards Hindutva-oriented politics.

A third front in Indian politics is a historic
necessity and has a reasonable chance
of success in the present context of India.
Although the coming general elections are
important for all parliamentary parties and
the prospects of a successful performance
in these elections could be an important glue
for welding a third front, the potentialities
of a third alternative for shaping a progressive
politico-economic agenda for
India is of a long-term significance.”

Posted by Vidya K.S. | Report as abusive

well, it is quite an interesting piece and the point about third front allies having sided with other parties of divergent ideological spectrums is indeed well taken. however, one wonders if the dismissal of the third front is too harsh. i wonder if the coming together of these regional parties in this manner to stake claims on the nation and the centre is a historical process that is unfolding which must not be undermined for the potential it holds for the subaltern groups. also, perhaps having remained regional in all these years, the parties have perhaps not explored the larger ideological (economic, political) issues that animate the nation? and the process of staking claims on the nation will propel them to evolve deeper philosophies?

Posted by swathi | Report as abusive