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