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Indian voters lose ‘third option’ for general election

Third Front formed two weeks ago as alternative to Congress and BJP disbands after differences over seat sharing.

NEW DELHI // A rag-tag coalition of regional political parties and leftists aimed to give Indian voters a viable alternative at upcoming parliamentary elections.

But the Third Front, as the group was known, disbanded on Monday just two weeks after its founding, ending a brief attempt at altering India’s political landscape.

Ahead of the May vote, the Third Front’s demise underscores the hold India’s two main political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have over politics.

On February 25, Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), announced the formation of the 11-party Third Front.

“We need an alternative,” Mr Karat said, outlining why he believed Indian voters want a different choice at the polls.

The Congress, which has headed the government for two consecutive five-year terms, is under fire and expected to fare poorly in the election.

Mr Karat cited “misrule, massive corruption” and “unprecedented price rises” as reasons to remove the Congress from power.

On the other hand, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, is a polarising figure known as a Hindu nationalist.

Mr Modi’s critics have accused him of failing to stop, or even abetting, anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, which left up to 2,000 people dead.

Mr Modi’s candidature “challenges the very secular edifice of our state and society”, Mr Karat said.

But mere opposition to the Congress and the BJP was not enough to foster a coherent ideology for the Third Front, said Peer Mohamed, a Chennai-based political analyst.

“Parties from different parts of India have different compulsions, and it will be difficult for such parties to build consensus upon issues,” Mr Mohamed told The National.

Along with the lack of a clear message, the Third Front’s choice for prime minister was also unclear.

The group included a number of strong regional leaders, all of whom wanted the position. This made the Third Front was vulnerable to infighting and confusion.

There have been previous attempts at forming alternative political groups in India.

The most successful was in 1996, when a United Front coalition with 192 seats, cobbled together after the election, formed the government with outside support from the Congress. It fell in less than a year, after the Congress withdrew its support.

In the 2009 elections, another alternative coalition, also called the Third Front, fared poorly in elections, losing 20 of the 98 seats it had held previously. Two of its eight parties then broke away and chose to provide outside suport to Congress.

The first cracks in the most recent incarnation of the Third Front emerged last week over seat-sharing squabbles in Tamil Nadu between the Left and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The AIADMK currently heads the government in the southern state.

The disintegration of the group became official on Monday, when the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Left parties decided to field their own candidates wherever they chose in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The parties had been unable to agree upon a way to divide up the parliamentary seats in the state between the coalition’s major members.

“It was decided that, rather than a pre-poll alliance, the members of the Third Front will join hands after the elections,” Girish, a secretary of the Communist Party of India, who uses only one name, said on Monday.

Even before the break-up of the Third Front, the Congress and the BJP had been scathing in their assessments.

“The Third Front will make India third-rate,” Mr Modi told a rally in Kolkata last month.

The Congress’s Manish Tewari, currently information and broadcasting minister, said the idea of such political alternatives was “the most enduring mirage of Indian politics”.

If the Third Front had stayed united, it might have won as many as 150 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, this year, Mr Mohamed said.

The Third Front’s 11 parties held 92 of the 545 seats in the current Lok Sabha.

Mr Mohamed said state-level parties such as the AIADMK and the Samajwadi Party had grown increasingly influential in national politics over the past two decades.

Members of the disbanded Third Front might yet be crucial in deciding who finally comes to power, if the contest between the Congress and the BJP is a tight one, he said

“If the Congress or the BJP crosses 150 seats, then it’s highly likely that they’ll try to poach parties from the Third Front,” Mr Mohamed said.

“Then it just becomes about the politics of convenience and about the temptation of power. It has happened before, and it may well happen again.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae