1996 Polls Prove a ‘Third Front’ Won’t Work, But the Idea Persists

The first third front government experiment did not last long. But the idea has survived and continues to thrive.

4 min read
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For Delhi journalists covering politics then, it was a complete reorientation of sorts. Conventional wisdom had all but collapsed after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. Fellow reporters chasing big stories were required to head to either of the three newly discovered locations: CPI(M) headquarters AK Gopalan Bhawan, Andhra Bhawan, and the Western Court residence of the then influential Tamil Nadu politician GK Moopnar.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the then boss of AK Gopalan Bhawan and general secretary of the party, seemingly had the authority to alter the decisions of the then prime minister. Andhra Bhawan boss N Chandrababu Naidu, then the chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, had earned the reputation of crisis manager-in-chief.

And the lucky ones, with the ability to decipher the full import of what laconic Moopnar would say, could walk away with big headlines.


1996’s Lottery Government

That was the year of the great Indian political circus. And also the high point of what was to become a recurring theme in Indian politics, the third front. The front was, and still is, nothing more than a coalition of disparate political parties, claiming to be different from the Congress and the BJP. They had nothing else in common. Their professed commitment to secularism, and growth with social justice, looked like an afterthought.

The coming together of different parties under one broad umbrella had triggered events we had not seen before. Here are a few examples:

The BJP emerged as the single largest party with 161 seats after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, but could run the government for a mere 13 days. The Congress had 140 members in the Lower House but never staked claim to form the government.

And the party with just 46 seats in the Lok Sabha got a chance to nominate one of its leaders to head the government!

HD Deve Gowda, who eventually become the prime minister, was not even one of the most powerful leaders of his own party, the Janata Dal. The first third front experiment was an exercise in chaotic governance.

Attempts for a ‘Third Front’ Before Every General Election

The prime minister had very little control over who would be inducted into his Cabinet. He had to get his Cabinet agenda cleared by a group of leaders (known as the ‘steering committee’ then) belonging to his allies. The ‘steering committee’ had the power to veto almost all decisions. And one never got the impression that the prime minister was capable of giving instructions to his council of ministers. It was a democracy at its chaotic best.

The first third front government experiment did not last long. But the idea has survived and gains momentum months before every general election.

Now that the Lok Sabha election is just a few months away, leaders like Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee have begun consultations with ‘like-minded’ parties to cobble together a possible third front.

All those ‘like-minded’ have allied with the Congress or the BJP at some point of time.

The fact remains that none of the aspirants of the third front is capable of winning even 10 percent of the Lok Sabha seats.

They are perhaps inspired by the chaotic events of 1996 when the probability of any worthwhile leader, with support from only a handful of MPs, becoming ministers or even the prime minister was quite high. But are the proponents of the third front aware of their limitations?


Idea of a ‘Third Front’ is Like Opium

Limitations are too many and lack of cohesion is not the only one. One of the biggest handicaps is the limited influence of each of the aspiring constituents. None of the non-Congress and non-BJP parties have sizeable electoral presence in more than one state. Left parties, one of the permanent features of the third front all these years, used to have significant presence in at least three states.

Now that they have been routed in West Bengal and Tripura, they too have become a single state political formation with some presence in Kerala alone. When parties with limited spheres of influence in dispersed geographical locations come together, they find it hard to gel and work together.

Non-Congress and non-BJP parties have been consistently getting close to 50 percent votes in all Lok Sabha elections since 1996. However, because of their poor strike rate (number of seats won for every one percent of votes) of close to 4, they fall short of crossing halfway mark on number of seats won, making them dependent on either of the two big parties to form government.

Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch!

However, the two big parties, the Congress and the BJP, have had a much better strike rate. The Congress had a strike rate in excess of 7 in 2009 and the BJP had an all time high strike rate of more than 9 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The Congress fared very poorly by winning just 44 Lok Sabha seats in the last general election. But the grand old party came second in as many as 224 seats.

The Congress won 44 and came second in 224 seats in 2014.
What it means is that the Congress was in a strong position in nearly half of all Lok Sabha seats and even a minor positive swing in its favour could significantly alter the arithmetic in the lower house of Parliament. Moreover, the votes polled by the Congress were more than the total votes received by the next 5 parties to have received the maximum votes.

My unsolicited advice therefore to the proponents of the third front would be: Don’t push an idea whose time has not come yet. And don’t keep pushing an idea which permanently needs crutches to stand on. Please work on closing the gap with the two big parties first. Personal ambitions can follow.

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