The third space in Indian politics is the largest and the most diverse, and yet the ‘third alternative’ has remained an unfulfilled experiment

A visitor to the Indian Capital, feeding mostly off television news and the buzz on the streets, is likely to come to two conclusions about the 2014 general election. That the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi and the Congress’s Rahul Gandhi will face off in a gladiatorial prime-ministerial contest. And that just maybe, the two will be given a run for their money, muscle and marketing by the newest sensation in the political bazaar — the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal.

The irony is: Together, the BJP and the Congress have suzerainty over only a fourth of a total of 38 recognised political parties that have a presence in the current Lok Sabha. The AAP, for all the raucous attention it has gathered, is not even a factor in the lower House.

For the first time since 1998, the BJP and the Congress will each go into a general election with a coalition that would be hard to recognise as one. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which touched a peak of 22 constituents under Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a rump today. Mr. Modi’s arrival hastened the NDA’s fragmentation though recently there has been some consolidation with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) already on board and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) expected to follow suit. There could be a few more small conquests but not enough to return the NDA to its previous glory.

The once formidable United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has unspooled into a rickety, unsure five-member coalition. The Congress’s two largest allies, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, have eight and three Lok Sabha seats respectively, but this has not stopped them from getting aggressive with the senior. The party’s probable new allies, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Jan Shakti Party, are themselves fighting comeback battles.

Furthering national ambitions

So two months to the election, the biggest newsmakers are two almost non-existent coalitions and one energetic, live-wire of a party that has thrown away its only government — in the city-state of Delhi. Nonetheless, the trio have got discussed and dissed, trashed and backed as if there was no world outside of their proclamations and protestations.

In truth, the largest number of political parties, representing a diverse range of interests, exist outside the command areas of the two biggies and the bright young rebel. Last year, 14 of them came together on a non-Congress, non-BJP platform. More recently, there has been some indication of a revival of the “third alternative.” The news has attracted weary disinterest but for one matter: Will the new bloc nominate J. Jayalalithaa for Prime Minister? Unsurprisingly, the question irritated the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister. In a hard-to-miss snub intended at Mr. Modi, she said it was futile for any party to announce a prime ministerial candidate without knowing the shape of the new Lok Sabha.

She is right. Technically, all 38 parties in the current Lok Sabha, and even those with no Lok Sabha seat, can nominate their own prime ministerial candidates. A gaggle of 38 or more self-declared PM-aspirants will be comical, of course. But the unlikely eventuality would also reflect an inescapable political reality: Every regional satrap, from Ms Jayalalithaa through Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar, is today a shadow Prime Minister in his or her own perception.

In fact, the larger national ambition of these leaders is one reason why the “third alternative” idea has resurfaced. Any political leader who is part of either the NDA or the UPA is automatically ruled out for the top executive’s post. Mr. Modi’s sectarian image is not the only roadblock against the NDA’s expansion. His being named the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate is itself a deterrent against significant additions to it. The case of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) illustrates this. The AIADMK was considered a sure bet for inclusion in the NDA. The process was halted by Mr. Modi’s emergence as PM-in-waiting. Why should Ms Jayalalithaa or for that matter any of the other regional leaders, foreclose his or her own prime ministerial possibility by peremptorily accepting Mr. Modi’s leadership? From a regional perspective, the presumptive “NaMo versus Rahul” projection, so favoured by pundits, could seem an insult to India’s federal spirit and diversity.

And yet the very ambition that makes the “third alternative” a seasonal election-eve occurrence also robs it of its credibility and renders it unattractive compared to two other options that have caught the electorate’s imagination this season: Mr. Modi himself and the phenomenal AAP. For a media in search of revenue-spinning news, Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal are obviously better TRP-pullers than a recycled “third plank” spouting the virtues of “secularism” even as its members freely changed sides.

Metaphor for change

Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal have each become a metaphor for change in an environment sullied by political corruption and opportunism. Confronted with the problem of leading a near-defunct NDA, Mr. Modi’s strategists came up with ‘mission 272+’ — a seat maximising project focussed on the Gujarat model. However, Mr. Kejriwal’s arrival, broomstick in hand, forced a change in the script. In the face of the AAP’s obsessive, dramatic and hugely impactful clean-up campaign, Mr. Modi could hardly sell development as if untouched by corruption. The BJP’s own unedifying record on corruption, and niggling questions around corporate support for the Gujarat model, made Mr. Modi’s task that much more difficult.

The Gujarat Chief Minister has circumvented the challenge by a mix of strategies, among them assuming the avatar of the “macho” man, standing head and shoulders above his own party. Mr. Modi has also made the most of his “humble tea-boy” origins, seizing gleefully upon a fatal faux pas made by the Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar in this regard. The “tea-boy” redefinition has opened new vistas, and helped Mr. Modi attempt an identification with the Hindi- belt poor which he could not do as an interloper from Gujarat. Which poor person will not bask in the reflected glory of a “tea-boy” reaching the pinnacle of power as Prime Minister?

Mr. Modi has since opened a line to the OBC castes citing his own OBC antecedents and kept the Hindutva flame burning via trusted aide Amit Shah’s calibrated references to the Ram mandir and covert backing of ground-level communal animosities. So, Mr. Modi is now a poor tea-boy of OBC origins, endowed with a 56-inch chest, and a frame large enough to stand between India and its problems. In this towering nationalist incarnation, he will deliver development as he will the Ram mandir. Given this all inclusive package, who will the poor, the OBCs and upper caste Hindus vote for?

The Gujarat Chief Minister’s protective giant is the polar opposite of Mr. Kejriwal’s ubiquitous, small man. The fact that he is running for Prime Minister means that Mr. Modi wants power. The AAP convener’s catchline, on the other hand, is “power to you, not me.” When Mr. Kejriwal said he will throw his government for the Jan Lokpal legislation, he meant it because his calling card is his detachment from power. Many of the AAP’s ideas are problematic. Its treatment of politics is simplistic, positing those on the side of governance as an undifferentiated evil and those outside of it as a pure, virtuous monolith. Yet, thanks to popular disillusionment with today’s politics, the AAP comes off sounding earnest even when it says the most outlandish thing. Of course, the AAP is a very small player. The larger point is that there is excitement around both Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal, with both being seen as change agents and for that reason sharing common voters.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that the “third alternative” seems so much like the re-enactment of a failed idea whose objective was and is to unite for power. A fundamental problem with the grouping is that it is not a structural, interdependent alliance whose members can enhance each other’s seat-gaining potential. Mr. Nitish Kumar is of no relevance in Odisha and Mr. Patnaik is of no relevance in Tamil Nadu. So, the “third alternative” will really kick in only after the election. But it is anybody’s guess what happens then. In the absence of a binding structural relationship, members can go where they please: to the NDA, to the UPA or to a coalition of their own.

Even should the “third alternative” get the largest tally of seats, it is unlikely to be able to form a government of its own. Except in 1977, when the Jan Sangh merged into the Janata Party, there has never been an Indian Lok Sabha where the non-Congress, non-BJP/Jan Sangh parties had a majority. This has meant a critical dependence on the BJP or the Congress for any “third plank” government. The BJP supported the 1989 V.P. Singh government and the Congress propped up the 1979 Charan Singh government, the 1990 Chandra Shekhar government and the 1996 United Front government.

The Congress pulled down two governments and forced a third to quit. The BJP did the same with the V.P. Singh regime — a history that makes the “third alternative” even less of an alternative.

vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

Keywords: BJPCongressAAPthird frontUPANDA

More In: Lead | Opinion