The unravelling of a Front

Print edition : April 11, 1998

There remains little sense of expectation that the United Front will reconstruct itself out of the debris.

RULING coalition till the other day, but now a rapidly vanishing entity. Although the signs were apparent in the prelude to the Lok Sabha elections, there is still considerable curiosity centred around the disintegration of the United Front. Having failed to support the burden of public hope that was thrust upon it, there remains little sense of expectation that the U.F. will reconstruct itself out of the debris as a viable alternative to the Congress(I) and the BJP. The Janata Dal, which constituted the core of the U.F., now exists in little else but name. A reconstitution, if at all it takes place, would have to be on an entirely different basis.

The Communist Party of India(Marxist), which played a pivotal role in the formation of the U.F. Ministry and the effort to keep it going, seems resigned to the disintegration of the Front. The relevance and utility of the coalition was limited to the task of keeping the BJP out of government, explains Prakash Karat, member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau. It did not conform to the strict understanding of "united front strategy" in the political terminology of the Left.

In the canonical Left variant, united front coalitions are built up through political campaigns on a variety of issues. Implicit in this conception is the notion of a common political understanding. That was not applicable in the case at hand since the U.F. was held together by little other than the shared threat perception of the BJP. As an adhesive, this ceased to have any relevance when the BJP-led alliance established itself as the only formation with a credible claim to Ministry formation.

A sense of regret is apparent at the failure of the U.F. to hold together as a viable Opposition force to confront the BJP. The difficulty within the coalition is that the perceptions of its constituents stretch across a wide spectrum and embrace the relatively friendly disposition of the Tamil Maanila Congress towards the Congress(I), and the unremitting hostility of the Asom Gana Parishad and the Telugu Desam Party.

U.F. leaders maintained their impassivity of demeanour once Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu led the TDP out of the U.F., and into a tacit alliance with the BJP. The defection from their ranks of a man who had been widely perceived as one of the principal bulwarks of U.F. unity, was a hard blow. The next blow came with TMC leader G.K. Moopanar's carefully calibrated effort to rejoin the Congress(I), from which he had parted ways in 1996. The rapprochement was aided and facilitated by the assumption of the Congress presidency by Sonia Gandhi. To each of Moopanar's overtures, the response from the parent organisation seemed positive and favourable.

Inevitably, the TMC's assimilation into the Congress(I) would imply that its electoral ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, would opt for a wider alliance in Tamil Nadu that could bring on board the residual vote share that the rump Congress enjoys. This may be an immediate compulsion for the ruling DMK, which is clearly threatened by the belligerent postures struck by arch-rival Jayalalitha's allies in the wake of their sweeping election triumph. That would effectively knock out a vital regional prop of the U.F., opening up another yawning gap in its geographical spread.

The U.F. confronts a serious dilemma that touches at the core of its existence - how to merge the diverse compulsions that its participants face in their regional contexts into a common purpose at the national level. In a non-antagonistic situation, it is conceivable that the Congress(I) could enter the U.F. calculations as a viable electoral ally. Even if it was as a junior partner, Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party adopted this strategic perspective in Maharashtra with conspicuous success. Laloo Prasad Yadav, an erstwhile luminary of the U.F., also achieved notable results in Bihar, though his Rashtriya Janata Dal was the senior partner in an alliance with the Congress(I).

This pattern was viable because the Congress(I) proved extremely accommodative in Maharashtra and relatively clear-eyed about its vanishing electoral base in Bihar. It is inapplicable elsewhere because these conditions are unlikely to prevail in other States, except in Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress(I) is rapidly fading out as a political force. A further factor is that since being bolstered by the resurrection of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the Congress(I) has begun increasingly to work on the assumption that it will be the unique beneficiary of the process of political polarisation that the BJP Government will inevitably engender.

The new mood within the Congress(I) envisages the steady marginalisation of the U.F. constituents, rather than their accommodation in a future electoral context. This has worn down some of the ardour that Mulayam Singh and Laloo Prasad had earlier displayed towards an arrangement of mutual convenience with the Congress(I).

Mulayam Singh's exertions today are primarily directed towards bringing Laloo Prasad back on board the U.F. The estrangement between the two Yadav chieftains predates Laloo Prasad's rancorous exit from the U.F. last year. Except for a brief truce in 1996, the two have persistently sought to undermine each other's prospects in electoral contests, often to the benefit of the BJP. Today, however, both are fighting for their very political survival.

Laloo Prasad faces the prospect of stricture and possible conviction for the massive defalcation of funds from the Department of Animal Husbandry in Bihar. And without a foothold in power either in Lucknow or Delhi, Mulayam Singh is vulnerable as never before to an all-out offensive by the BJP.

Laloo Prasad's reinduction may well make the U.F. a more significant electoral force, without significantly contributing to a consolidation of its core political values. And if the 18-month tenure of the U.F. Government has any lessons, it is that in a long term political context arithmetical consolidation is of considerably less valuethan evolving a consensus on basic socio-economic commitments.

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