The exit of the Janata Dal (United) from the National Democratic Alliance has come as no surprise to anyone, least of all to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The writing was on the wall for months now, and last week’s elevation of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s campaign committee chief was the last straw for the JD(U). That the BJP would be taking a calculated risk in projecting Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, even at the cost of losing allies, was no secret.

The JD(U)-BJP separation, even if expected, has wide ramifications for the future of the NDA and its shot at power in the 2014 elections. BJP patriarch L K Advani’s “I-told-you-so” posture is bound to cause a lot of discomfort among those who pushed Modi’s case in the party, while other allies are also likely to challenge the BJP’s unilateralism on the issue of the alliance’s prime ministerial candidate. Parties like the Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal have for now welcomed the decision on Modi, but the support will be conditional on how well he does business with them.

Nitish Kumar. Pic: Wikimedia

Realpolitik, not ideology

JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar has tried to give the break-up of his party’s 17-year-old relationship an ideological veneer, but what we are seeing is realpolitik at play. The Bihar chief minister is now invoking his party’s “secular credentials,” while conveniently wanting the world to forget that he was very much a Cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government when one of India’s bloodiest communal riots took place in Modi’s Gujarat in 2002.

What Kumar is doing is to cleverly position himself as equidistant from both the BJP and the Congress. With a near-majority in the Bihar legislative assembly, Kumar doesn’t need the BJP for him to stay on in power. The JD(U) can go before the electorate without the “communal” BJP baggage, thus standing a better chance of winning the Muslim vote. Kumar realises that it would be disastrous for him to be on the same side as the BJP in an election that is expected to be a highly polarised one, thanks to Modi.

It is this logic that is defining the stances of other players like Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee, and Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik who along with Nitish Kumar comprise an informal “eastern bloc.” Add AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa, Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and Telugu Desam Party’s Chandrababu Naidu and you have a larger third front.

The idea of a third front minus the Congress and the BJP stems from the compulsions of some of these parties, more than their anti-Congressism or anti-BJPism. All of them have been in political arrangements led by either of these parties or supported by them from outside at various points of time. In 1996 when H.D.Deve Gowda became the prime minister of a 13-party United Front government, propped up by the Congress from outside, the BJP was an untouchable for many of these parties. However, by the time the Vajpayee government took over in 1999, some of these parties had shed their anathema for the BJP.

In the present scheme of things, it will be difficult to visualise the emergence of a leader who will be acceptable to all the regional satraps. And even if such a leader were to emerge, longevity will be a huge challenge because of the competing egos of the leaders of the constituent parties and divergence of opinion on issues.

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Third front a bogey

To assume therefore that Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu have shut the doors on the BJP, or the Congress, forever would be wrong. They will keep their options open and gravitate towards either of the two national parties depending on who has a better chance of forming a government. Till then the idea of a third front or federal front will be pursued, but more as a bogey. Its biggest weakness will be that its viability and longevity will be dictated by one of the two national parties that chooses to support it from outside. In 1991, the Congress pulled down the Chandra Shekhar government in four months, Deve Gowda’s in 11 months in 1997, and I.K.Gujral’s in seven months the next year.

In the past, the Left parties have been the architects of non-Congress, non-BJP formations. In the present situation though, they cannot associate themselves with it if the Trinamool Congress is also a part of it. Similarly, Nitish Kumar and the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Laloo Prasad Yadav are staunch rivals and cannot be in each other’s company. So is the case with Mulayam and Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati, and the AIADMK and DMK.

The third front is, at best, a theoretical possibility and that too in a post-poll context when either of the two mainline parties fail miserably. Also in the present scheme of things, it will be difficult to visualise the emergence of a leader who will be acceptable to all the regional satraps. And even if such a leader were to emerge, longevity will be a huge challenge because of the competing egos of the leaders of the constituent parties and divergence of opinion on issues. The so-called federalist urges of these parties are not strong enough for them to bury whatever differences they may have and bind them to a common minimum programme of governance.

It is not that the proponents of the third alternative are not conscious of the fragility of the concept. That explains why Nitish Kumar has left the door slightly ajar for the BJP even now. As of today, the NDA hasn’t formally announced its prime ministerial candidate. And Advani, who is acceptable for the JD(U), is said to have again told BJP chief Rajnath Singh that the decision to anoint Modi campaign committee chief had antagonised and alienated the allies, and that the elections should be fought under a collective leadership. In a post-election scenario, if the NDA wins enough seats and Advani, or someone other than Modi, emerges as a consensus choice, Kumar should have no hesitation in returning to the NDA. The Congress will of course welcome him if it falls short of numbers.

As a strategy, equidistance from the Congress and the BJP may or may not work for the regional parties. In the JD(U)’s case, for instance, the party will have to go it alone at the risk of forgoing the advantage of incremental gains that an alliance with the BJP would have brought to it. Similarly, the Trinamool Congress will face two formidable opponents in the Left parties and the Congress which was an ally last time round. It is too early to predict whether these changed circumstances would prove beneficial or not to these parties.