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24 July, 2008

When the third alternative emerges

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proving that he commands majority in the Lok Sabha, the government has earned the right to go ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. However, the odour left behind by the tactics employed by government supporters to win the confidence vote and by its opponents to defeat it will not die down quickly. The Left parties, which had withdrawn support to the government on the issue of the nuclear deal, were as keen to defeat the motion as the government was to carry it through. In the beginning, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition, demonstrated the same zeal too. However, when the possibility of a third front in the form of Mayawati emerged in the distant horizon, its enthusiasm cooled considerably.

At no stage did the confidence vote turn into a struggle between the ruling United Progressive Alliance and its national alternative, the National Democratic Alliance. The main combatants were two parties which are not in either combination, Mulayam Singh”s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). For them it was an extension of the power struggle in Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati is a leader who could see on the sky what Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Prakash Karat saw on the tree. Even as the Left kept repeating that it would withdraw its support to the government, she went ahead and did it. That, too, on the issue of the nuclear deal. Like the Left, the SP and the BSP had extended support to the UPA to prevent the BJP’s return to power. Mulayam Singh, who had been nicknamed Maulana after he garnered Muslim support on a large scale, could not have gone with the BJP. Mayawati, who had become Chief Minister of UP twice earlier with BJP support, had no difficulty in joining hands with that party. But even with its support, the BJP would still have been too far from a parliamentary majority.

The Congress, which drew up a common minimum programme with the Left, did not establish a special relationship with the SP or the BSP. After the bid by former CPI-M general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet to bring the SP close to the Congress failed, the relationship between the two parties was not even very friendly. Sonia Gandhi had given indications of the Congress party’s interest in forging ties with the BSP in different ways including sending flowers to Mayawati but there was no favourable response. What kept the Left, the SP and the BSP on the same side for more than four years was the hopeless situation created by the results of the last Lok Sabha elections. It is the approach of fresh elections that has compelled them to review their stands.

The fact is that all parts including the Left are in a hopeless situation. To secure its base in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, the CPI-M has to abandon the Congress. The question before the SP and the BSP is how they can safeguard their position in UP. In that State, following a continuous decline, the Congress party is now in the fourth position. At different stages, Mulayam Singh’s party and the BJP emerged as the alternative to the Congress but they could not retain that position. It is the consequent change in political equations that has led to Mayawati’s emergence as the Queen of the Third Front and prompted Prakash Karat to go to Lucknow to seek her darshan.

UP sends the largest contingent of 80 members to the Lok Sabha. Kanshi Ram had founded the BSP aiming to seize power by bringing Dalits, backward classes and minorities under one flag. It could not take away backward classes from Mulayam Singh, who is a Yadav. For some years now the SP and the BSP have been in competition for Muslim support. Unlike in other States, Brahmins have considerable numerical strength in UP. The success of her efforts to woo them was one of the factors that enabled the BSP to come to power on its own in the last Assembly elections there.

The SP needs an ally badly to prevent Mayawati from repeating her Assembly poll Assembly poll performance in the Lok Sabha elections. It is not easy for Mulayam Singh, who has been a strong opponent of the Sangh Parivar from his Janata Dal days, to make friends with the BJP. An alliance with the Left will not help as it has no base in the Hindi States. In the circumstances, he cannot rely on any party other than the Congress. That was why he came forward to save the government within minutes of the Left withdrawing its support, ignoring a public warning by CPI-M Politburo member MK Pandhe about Muslim reaction. His conscience-keeper Amar Singh girded up his loins and jumped into the arena.

All speeches by leaders during the debate on the confidence motion were election perorations. Although the government has been able to demonstrate majority support, it is unlikely that the Congress will attempt to carry on until the end of the current Lok Sabha on its strength. The reason is that Mulayam Singh, like Prakash Karat, will be a troublesome ally. Amar Singh is a new generation politician who maintains close links with the captains of industry and other vested interests. Karat troubled the government with demands which were mostly related to party ideology. Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh are not travelling with ideological baggage. Their demands are likely to be related to the needs of their friends.

Whether the elections are early or late, there is no reason to assume that the next Lok Sabha will be very different from the present one. The only party that seems to have the ability to improve its position is the BSP. The BJP’s hopes rest on the anti-incumbency factor that the Congress has to contend with. There are several States where the Congress and the BJP are in virtual direct conflict. Most of them are under BJP rule. As such, the anti-incumbency factor may hit too to some extent. Most opposition parties consider the price rise, which has imposed a heavy burden on the people, a good election issue. This, too, may not yield the expected results. In Kerala, even as it puts the Congress in the dock for the petrol price hike, the Left will have to answer for the increase in bus fares and electricity rates.

The CPI-M reckons that it can get out of the present hopeless situation if the dream of a third alternative is realized. It was the undivided CPI that loomed large as the national alternative after the first general elections. In the 1960s, it lost that position. Later, one after another, the Swatantra Party, the Janata Party and the BJP arose. The BJP is a party with inherent weaknesses. The possibility of another party rising to take its place cannot be ruled out. But the Left parties, individually and collectively, lack the ability to occupy that space today. The policies and programmes followed by the CPI-M, which became the main flag-bearer of the Left after the CPI, played a big part in the emergence of a right-wing alternative at the national level. If the attempt to promote a third alternative under Mayawati’s leadership succeeds, the concept of Left alternative will recede farther. At the same time the Dalit empowerment resulting from it, howsoever limited, may lead to beneficial changes.
Based on column ‘Nerkkazhcha’ appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated July 24, 2008.

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