The UPA still has an edge over NDA and Third Front

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

As the elections draw near, there have been a few honest admissions by politicians about their party’s chances.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Sushma Swaraj, for instance, has acknowledged that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by her party, will not get a majority. She, however, believes that it will be able to secure the support of a few allies to cross the crucial half-way point of 272 MPs.

Like her, Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has conceded that the so-called Third Front favoured by the Left may have to depend on the Congress to form a government.

His choice of the Congress is surprising considering that he spearheaded a bitter campaign against the Manmohan Singh government on the India-US nuclear deal and tried to topple it in parliament by lining up with the BJP. But, as is known, there are no permanent friends or foes in politics (or diplomacy); only permanent interests.

Since Karat has chosen the Congress as a possible ally, it will not be unreasonable to expect the latter to bank on Left support to form a government, as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) expects. The latter possibility is more feasible considering that the comrades were with the Congress for nearly four years of its present term.

However, what such a move will mean is that the Front will splinter, as it also will if it wants to bank on the Congress to come to power. The reason is the presence in the combination of two mercurial women – Mayawati and Jayalalitha. While the latter may not be unwilling to either ask for Congress support or call upon the Front to back the Congress, considering that she had looked for a partnership with the Congress not long ago, it is Mayawati who will be the stumbling block.

The reason is that while the Congress will not help the Third Front to install Mayawati as prime minister, she, on her part, will veto any move by the Front to help the Congress to form a government.

In any event, her and Jayalalitha’s domineering personalities will ensure that the Front will find it very nearly impossible to constitute itself into a coherent unit. Even if it somehow manages the numbers, it will not be seen as a viable entity, especially if ambitious but unreliable politicians like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) join it to queer the pitch further.

Of all the senior leaders, Pawar has been the most fidgety of late, presumably because he feels that this is his last chance to be prime minister. He has been seen, for instance, in the company of the Shiv Sena’s Bal Thackeray while his party has stitched up an alliance with the Sena’s adversary, the Congress, in Maharashtra.

At the same time, Pawar has also been hobnobbing with another of the Congress’s present-day opponents, the Third Front. He was expected to attend a rally with the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) Naveen Patnaik, who recently broke with the BJP, and the Left in Orissa, but backed off after the Congress expressed its displeasure. How adroitly Pawar performs the balancing act between the extreme Right – the Shiv Sena – and the Left with the Congress in the middle is a feat which will be worth watching.

If the Front has the problem of pushy members – Mayawati, Jayalalitha and Pawar – the BJP carries the burden of restive and inconsequential partners. Two of its allies, the BJD in Orissa and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, have drifted away while another, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) in Bihar, has indicated that it will decide on staying on in the NDA after the elections.

What may have perturbed the JD-U is the BJP’s increasingly anti-Muslim attitude, which has been underlined by Varun Gandhi’s inflammatory speeches. It is obvious that the BJP has chosen to stand by this young (his critics would say renegade) member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty because the party believes that his anti-minority rhetoric can enthuse the cadres at a time when it has lost both its temple and terror planks, which used to be its trump cards earlier.

Now, the BJP has to fall back on its old mainstay of minority-baiting, but this tactic cannot but alienate the NDA’s secular components like the JD-U. Since Varun Gandhi has also attacked the Sikhs, apart from the Muslims, another of the BJP’s partners, the Akali Dal in Punjab, cannot be too pleased with the turn of events.

The uneasiness of these allies cannot be compensated by the BJP’s latest acquisitions – the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam. All three are minor parties with localised influence – the RLD in western Uttar Pradesh and the INLD in tiny Haryana. Of them, the AGP has even said that it is not a part of the NDA.

While the Third Front looks unwieldy and the BJP uncertain, the Congress has shot itself in the foot by its arrogance. By refusing to enter into a national-level alliance with its UPA partners, it made them hit back at Big Brother in their strongholds in the Hindi heartland.

In an insulting move, the Congress was offered a measly three and six seats, respectively, out of 40 and 80 by the RJD, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Samajwadi Party in Bihar and UP.

The breakdown of their understanding with the Congress has also made the RJD, the LJP and the Samajwadi Party form an alliance among themselves – a mini-front within the UPA. But the consolation for the Congress is that they have decided, for the present, to remain in the UPA.

In any event, they are unlikely to move to the Third Front because of their antipathy towards Mayawati or to the NDA because of the BJP. So, the UPA can be said to have retained its outward contours. The only desertion from it has been by the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), but it is basically a minor party of Tamil Nadu.

On the other hand, it has won the support of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, which is expected to do fairly well in partnership with the Congress against the Left.

All in all, therefore, the Congress-led UPA seems somewhat better placed than the other two formations.

(04.04.2009-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])