The third way out

Alarmism on the prospects of a third front will only constrain our options

The idea of a third front may not be a coherent political project. But its shadowy presence is a reminder that there is an underlying yearning to break through the limited choices offered by national parties. The Congress has perfected the art of converting the "there is no alternative" argument to a form of hubris and blackmail. It has induced such a profound myopia and arrogance in the party that even Congress supporters chafe at the thought of having no options. It may not always be irrational to succumb to blackmail, but we will be diminished if we don't punish it for its follies. The BJP does not, at present, offer a reassuring alternative. The party has four structures pulling in different directions: an obdurate RSS that still cannot overcome its past, several competent chief ministers whose ability to work together is yet to be tested, a feckless central leadership that has no grassroots appeal or track record of statesmanship, and Narendra Modi, trying to create a presidential style of legitimacy in a federalised parliamentary system. It is in a race with the Congress over the same things: indecisiveness, corruption, decimation of institutions and a

sense of entitlement. The competition in the democratic system is like so many things in India, both intense and illusory at the same time.

The barriers to opening up this system are immense. Both parties have a collusive stranglehold on the Centre. Other institutional innovations have allowed oligarchs to go unchallenged even more. In retrospect, the anti-defection law effectively killed Parliament, by making it a handmaiden of the party system, and it deprived those voices within the party that might want change from possessing any bargaining levers. Other laws also make political change harder. The nature of election finance is a serious entry barrier. But a host of contrivances give a huge advantage to entrenched power structures: the fact that in our zeal to curb expenses we made campaign times short may have the unintended consequence of making it harder for newcomers to introduce themselves to a constituency. We have choices, but the menu is already constrained.

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