Pritam Singh


The proposal for a third alternative, opposed both to the Congress and the BJP, continues to retain significance in the political landscape of India. The recent coming together of some regional parties that have roots in India’s socialist political tradition has again given boost to the prospects of a third alternative in Indian politics. The continuing turmoil in AAP, which could have been imagined as a possible third alternative, further adds significance to the Janata Parivar initiative. It cannot be ruled out that in future AAP, united or divided, the BSP and the Left parties can also be a part of a powerful third alternative.


The central question facing any third-front alternative is the need to define its identity, which is distinctly different from the long-term visions of the Congress and BJP politics in India. There are three key aspects that are central to understanding the political visions of these two main national parties in India: conception of India as a nation, the place of class and caste in the political perspectives of these parties, and the class/caste composition of their leadership and social base. Their conception of India as a nation has implications for their political approaches to the regional parties, especially those that are articulators of regional nationalism. Their perspective on class has implications for their relationship with the Left parties, and their caste perspectives and the caste composition of their leadership and social base have implications for relationships with the parties representing middle and lower castes.


Regarding the conception of India as a nation, both the Congress and BJP visions represent two versions of one perspective on Indian nationalism. Both stand for one unified Indian nationalism opposed to multiple nationalisms articulated by some of the region-specific parties. Both stand for strengthening the Centre and the forces of centralisation against the regions and the forces of decentralisation. One (the Congress) represents the secular/semi-secular, and the other (the BJP) represents the Hindu version of the perspective of one unified Indian nationalism built through a strong Centre.


In terms of class perspectives, both the Congress and the BJP support the vision of Indian big capital whose class interests demand a unified Indian market without the various administrative, legal and financial hurdles created by the provincial/state boundaries. The overall class perspective of the Congress and the BJP in favour of big Indian capital puts them in direct opposition to the egalitarian perspective of the Left parties, and their support for an integrated Indian capitalist market also creates tensions with the region/state-based parties.


In terms of caste dimensions, both the Congress and the BJP are predominantly upper-caste parties. The BJP has been a much more upper-caste-oriented party than the Congress. This has been mainly due to the Brahminical-oriented influence of Hindutva ideology and organisations (such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). Although there are inter-state differences in the caste social base of both the Congress and the BJP, both the parties remain primarily upper-caste parties in terms of the composition of the leadership. This upper-caste dominance in both the Congress and the BJP pits them in opposition to the parties representing the lower castes and even middle castes. UP and Bihar are the two states in India where the emergence of caste-based regional parties have successfully posed challenge to the dominance of both the Congress and the BJP. The Janata Parivar initiative is a continuation of that challenge.


The three components of the possible third front-the Left, the regional nationalist parties and the BSP-have one common and several different reasons in opposing the Congress and the BJP. The Left is primarily opposed to the class politics of both these parties. The regional parties are opposed to the BJP and the Congress primarily because they are both ideologically supportive of a strong Centre. Some of these regional parties (e.g. the Akali Dal in Punjab and, at an earlier stage, Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh) have allied themselves with the BJP not because of the proximity of their politics to those of the BJP but because the Congress is their main electoral opponent. If there is a viable non-BJP and non-Congress third front, almost all regional allies of the BJP (except perhaps the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra) will walk out of their alliance with the BJP. The decision of the Oriya nationalist party, BJD, to break its ties with the BJP is a pointer in this direction.  All regional nationalist parties see the Congress and BJP’s centralising agendas as a threat to their region-based identity and strength. They are, therefore, natural components of a possible third alternative that advocates decentralisation, diversity and recognition of multiple regional nationalisms in India. However, for these regional parties and the Left to become programmatic allies of each other, both the Left and these regional nationalist parties have to reconfigure some aspects of their respective programmes.


The Left will have to articulate very clearly a devolutionary perspective that recognises the multiple regional nationalisms in India. The lower-caste parties (BSP being the most prominent of them) will also need to re-orient their existing politics in two domains-egalitarianism and devolution of power-if these parties are to build solid foundations for forging a third alternative with the Left and regional nationalist parties.  A wider egalitarian perspective than the one merely focused on caste would facilitate a clearer and consistent basis for alliance between the lower-caste parties and the Left.  The Indian Left also needs to re-evaluate its old politics to accommodate aspirations of the oppressed castes for liberation from caste oppression. The lower-caste parties’ ambivalence on decentralisation which is partly a continuation of Ambedkar’s own ambivalence on this question needs reevaluation. The lower-caste parties’ ambivalence on devolution is partly also due to their political base being located mainly in the Hindi region, and this region has historically been supportive of increasing centralisation. For a robust alliance with the regional nationalist parties, the lower-caste parties need to argue clearly for devolution of powers to the states.


If a progressive third alternative does not emerge in India, and the BJP and the Congress remain the only two alternative poles of politics, the centre of gravity of Indian politics will move even more towards Hindutva-oriented politics than it is today. A third alternative based on an agenda of egalitarianism and decentralisation can decisively change the terms of political discourse and mobilisation away from this possible drift towards Hindutva-oriented politics. Such an alternative should include environmental activists, peace campaigners opposed to the nuclear nationalism of the BJP and the Congress, human rights groups, non-governmental organisations working for egalitarian development projects and progressive currents of the Indian diaspora.


The coming state assembly elections in Bihar and UP and the prospects of a successful performance by the Janata Parivar grouping in defeating the BJP in these elections could be an important glue for welding a third alternative which is becoming a historic necessity for shaping a progressive politico-economic agenda for India.


(The Tribune, April 20, 2015)

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