Friends like Mulayam

The month of March was dominated by Mulayam Singh and the DMK. Both brought the UPA government to the brink and then backed off, at least for the time being. While this led to considerable speculation on the life of the government and the possibility of an early election, it also foregrounded the complex issue of coalition-making during and after the next general elections.

Between 1989 and 2013, two broad models of coalition have emerged. Since 1998, a coalitional bipolarity seems to have stabilised. This still left out quite a few parties, which refused to be subsumed by either the NDA or the UPA. But the formation of these two alliances meant that government formation was practically centred on them. The other model revolves around what has been called the "Third Front". Since 1989, it has been argued that the Congress and BJP both need to be, and can be, kept out of government formation and the "rest" could form a coalition that becomes the federal front. This line has many takers, both in the political arena and in intellectual circles.

Parties other than the Congress and the BJP have their own stakes in such an arrangement. Only by keeping these two parties out could players like the Janata Dal in the past and the Samajwadi Party now think of a decisive role at the Centre. In 1989, non-Congressism helped these Third Front partners come together and provided some political justification for their alliance, which was bereft of ideological commonality. The menace of communalism replaced non-Congressism in the mid-1990s. Thus, non-BJPism became the binding factor for the United Front government of 1996. Mulayam Singh's renewed attack on the Congress needs to be read in this context. Parties such as the SP, DMK, TMC and so on require an argument — both to convince their cadres and to justify their stand to the larger public. They lack ideological cohesion. They do not have a common position on most crucial issues. Most of them have been party to the economic policies of the last quarter of a century, since they have been part of either the NDA or the UPA governments (or both, as in the case of the TMC and DMK), and cannot escape blame for the current economic crisis. So, they need to keep (re-)discovering the vices of the Congress and BJP in order to dump these parties and form a Third Front yet again. That is the process Mulayam Singh seeks to set in motion. He realises that his party, and others like his, can perhaps survive as ruling parties at the state level by negotiating with the BJP or the Congress. But at the national level, they can play a decisive role only by decimating the two larger parties. The question is: is Mulayam Singh saying anything that N.T. Rama Rao or V.P. Singh did not say in those early years of the Third Front?

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