Watch this space

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated". The United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA) that positioned itself as an alternative to the two dominant coalition fronts, the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led NDA, could well borrow Mark Twain's phrase. Obituaries were written at the time of its birth and still continue to be written. Even in the recent standoff on the nuclear issue, the focus was on the two fronts and their allies. Despite it not being able to capture popular imagination, insights from theoretical literature on political parties reveal that it is still too early to be written off.

Open jockeying within the UNPA has hardly helped raise confidence in its viability as a serious challenger. From the presidential elections to the choice of vice-president and the nuclear deal, the UNPA has not presented itself as a cohesive force. So, why should the third front not be given up for lost? The clue may lie in the answers to three questions. One, why have third fronts not been readily accepted? Two, why do third fronts behave the way they do? Three, how have the incumbent fronts reacted?

Two reasons may be advanced as to why third fronts are not readily acknowledged. One, the third front disturbs the harmony in the mental model that we have created. This has to do with what anthropologists have identified as the general human proclivity towards symmetry and stability. Most human creations seek to conform to some form of symmetry and only those that do are deemed to be appealing to human senses. The number two is therefore most often equated with equilibrium and balance. As a result, we are comfortable with two fronts and three becomes a crowd.

Second, winners get more attention and losers are often passed over. Contrast the recent reception the victorious Twenty20 cricket team received with that of the knocked out world cup team earlier this year. We love our winners and take no notice of losers. What is the composition of the third front? It is a combination of state-based political parties, none of which exercises power in their respective states. This group of out-of-office parties are additionally handicapped as they also do not have the numbers to make an impression at the Centre. Consequently their actions tend to fall outside our attention frame.

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