The third front will remain a mirage, at least in May 2019 because so many things have changed in the two decades after 1996 and now.
Buoyed by the stunning victory in the elections to the state assembly, Telengana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) is taking himself too seriously. It appears that the TRS leader began to see in himself India’s next prime minister.
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KCR made a futile visit to New Delhi last week to take his project forward. He is keen on the Prime Minister’s job and so are his children; his son, KT Rama Rao and daughter Kavita. It will make sense to recall the context in which the idea of a third front, as it took shape in the summer of 1996, materialised. The United Front, as it was known, was indeed the culmination of the anti-Congressism that had taken shape in the mid-1960s to first knock the bottom of the Congress party’s monopoly over the electoral politics in 1967. The Congress lost nine state assemblies in the March 1967 general elections followed by Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, in April 1967, to a combination of deserters and opposition MLAs that came together under the name Samyukta Vidhayak Dal.
Though the forces that came together in 1967 dissipated in just a couple of years and were decimated by Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the 1971 general elections, they gathered together again in 1977 to sweep elections. They fought among themselves again and on an important issue -- on whether to sustain the unity and let the Bharatiya Jan Sangh -- backed by the cadre based RSS to take over the Janata Party. Madhu Limaye, among the sharpest political minds of the time, worked to break the Janata Party and thus postpone the rise of the RSS-backed Jana Sangh for the time being.
Then came 1989, when the National Front formed yet another non-Congress government (under VP Singh) but it was essentially different from the experiences of non-Congressism of 1967 and 1977. The National Front refused a space for the BJP in the government and its fall too was caused because Lalu Prasad Yadav, then chief minister of Bihar, followed Madhu Limaye to arrest LK Advani and stop his rath yatra in Samastipur. Lalu knew too well that the VP Singh government would fall in the event and it did!
The decisive and turning point in this came on December 6, 1991 when hordes led by the BJP’s top brass and others from the RSS stable demolished the Babri Masjid. It was from then that most of those who inherited the anti-Congress tradition of 1967 (Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav, etc.), began pitching for a non-Congress and non-BJP front and this ended with the making of the United Front and two of its governments between 1996 and 1998.
Chandrababu Naidu, who happened to be KCR’s leader in 1996 (KCR was minister for transport in the TDP government then and still a bleary eyed worshipper of NTR, so much so that he named his son after NTR) jumped on to the effort and inherited the mantle of being its convener from his father-in-law. And as it was with his father-in-law, Chandrababu too did not consider the BJP a problem as much as he saw the Congress as. It took him to the BJP-led NDA in 1998 and stick there for long, perhaps longer than Nitish Kumar, if the number of years when Nitish re-converted himself to secularism, is to be counted.
Most others who were in the National Front or later in the United Front, such as the DMK and the National Conference too supped with the BJP and the Congress alternately. The Janata Dal, which seemed the core of the non-Congress and non-BJP experiment splintered; like the BJD in Odisha, the JD (S) in Karnataka, the JD(U) in Bihar and the LJP with Paswan, the RLD and the SP in Uttar Pradesh.
This qualitative change in the discourse was the fallout of two important developments: the BJP deciding to opt for the coalition course in 1998 and persist with it in 1999 determined to take in anyone and everyone into the NDA. Recall that a couple of ministers, Buta Singh and Sedapatti Muthiah having to quit the union cabinet within weeks of they were sworn in. The Congress party too following suit in 2004. And like it happened between 1998 and 1999, no one was kept out on grounds such as moral or ethical by the Congress, too.
This has not changed. It is now clear that the Congress is not dead and a thing of the past, Rahul Gandhi is a force in May 2019 and the BJP is a pale shadow of what the party had emerged into in 2013-14 with Modi blazing the trail. In other words, the political space is occupied either by the Congress or by the BJP and the many others who are a force – the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the RLD, the RJD, the JD(S), the DMK, the Left parties, the TDP, the TMC, the NC and others – are more at home with the Congress than the BJP for now. They see Gandhi’s party a lot more chastened now than it was in its heydays in the 1960s. And the BJP under Modi as more difficult to deal with than under Vajpayee.
This being the case, KCR’s third front idea cannot and will not take any concrete shape. He may end up, as would Naveen Pattnaik in Odisha, remaining the chief minister of Telangana. His son, Kalvalakuntla Tarak Rama Rao and his sister Kavita may wish to continue where they are and stop dreaming of a fief in the South with their father as Emperor. The third front will remain a mirage, at least in May 2019 because so many things have changed in the two decades after 1996 and now.
First Published: IST