Despite being a loose formation of parties opposed to both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the newly launched Third Front is beginning to have a settled look. Crucially, the prime ministerial question is out of the way for now. With the Bahujan Samaj Party not insisting on a pre-election endorsement of its president, Mayawati, as the prime ministerial candidate, the Left-inspired coalition of regional players can look forward to dealing with issues that unite, and not divide, them. The Third Front must be hoping to reverse the polarisation witnessed in the 14th Lok Sabha, which saw regional parties gravitating towards either the Congress or the BJP. Many of the parties that were part of the United Front during 1996-98 subsequently allied with either the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The Left parties have managed to lure back some of the parties that were with the BJP: the Telugu Desam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and the Biju Janata Dal. Besides, the Janata Dal (Secular), which had a short-lived marriage of convenience with the BJP in Karnataka, is now one of the prime forces behind the Third Front. While trade-offs such as the BSP for the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the AIADMK for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu are unavoidable, the new formation is without a significant partner in Bihar despite the fact that the State is dominated by regional players. Of the two offshoots of the Janata Dal, the Rashtriya Janata Dal is with the UPA and the Janata Dal (United) is with the NDA.
The greatest strength of the Third Front — its ability to attract all non-Congress, non-BJP parties — also makes it vulnerable. Whether it will hold together in the post-election scenario depends on the nature of the poll outcome. Other than the Left parties, the constituents have in the past allied themselves with either the Congress or the BJP. The TDP and the BJD are former alliance partners of the BJP; and the BSP, the AIADMK, and the JD(S) have aligned, at different points in time, with both the Congress and the BJP. If the UPA or the NDA emerges within striking distance of a majority in the 15th Lok Sabha, some of the Third Front constituents might be wooed back by their former partners. In the event of neither the Congress nor the BJP faring well, the Third Front might conceivably supply the Prime Minister. But that arrangement would almost certainly be at the mercy of one or the other of the two leading parties in the political system. At this stage, what the Third Front appears to have achieved is to throw this election wide open.