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The Third Front is still a moving space in search of an identity

The demand for special category status for their states by chief ministers Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee is evidently more than just that. Its articulation in this fluid political moment, when the countdown for the 2014 elections has begun and both the ruling Congress and the main opposition party BJP seem steeped in crises, is an exercise in political positioning and signalling. This is also the context for the renewed frisson about the Third Front. Banerjee's advocacy of the idea, followed by Patnaik's show of support and signs of Nitish gravitating to it, all draw on the same calculation. With the two main national parties immersed in their problems, this may appear to be a good time for regional parties to assert their presence, enhance their bargaining power. For the rest, however, the idea of the Third Front remains hobbled by the problems that have overtaken and subdued its ambition in the past.

The Third Front in India hasn't been a viable contender for power at the Centre on its own. Be it the V.P. Singh-led National Front in the late 1980s, or the two United Front governments in the mid-1990s, Third Front governments have needed to be propped up by either the Congress or the BJP. The V.P. Singh government was supported from outside by the Left and BJP; both the Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral-led UF governments depended on the Congress for outside support. A Third Front today, made up of regional parties confined to small arenas, would be saddled with the same problem. In all likelihood, it will also miss a centrepiece like the Janata Dal a party with substantial numbers around which smaller parties could cohere. The absence of a centre of gravity could end up making the jostling between leaders to be first among equals even more fierce, and paralysing.

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