What do the years 1979, 1989, 1990 and 1996 have in common? Not a lot. You can only tell trends. For instance, average Consumer Price Index inflation rose steadily. It was 6.23 per cent in 1979, 7.11 per cent in 1989, 8.92 per cent in 1990 and 8.98 per cent in 1996.
It was in the decade of the '90s that India told the world it had the most beautiful women on earth - four young Indian women were crowned Miss World (1994, 1997, 1999 and 2000). It was almost as if the political upheavals during these years, the political instability and rapid turnover of prime ministers didn't matter. But there was a lot of that. What these years did have in common was: each one of them saw a different prime minister heading a government that was neither led by the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). None of them lasted a full five-year term and, thus, earned for themselves the 'instability' tag. And yet, it was during the tenure of these governments that some of the most far-reaching economic reforms were undertaken. There is no known evidence of any significant incidence of corruption, though admittedly the life of these governments was short.
So what should we derive from the tenure of the Third Fronts in the past? And is India looking at another spell of instability-linked economic reform?
The first thing that strikes you is: Third Front governments have had prime ministers who have tried to work as the primus inter pares (first among equals) but have rarely succeeded in doing so.
VP Singh, for instance, may have been genuinely devoted to social re-engineering and implemented the Mandal Commission recommendations, but supporters of deputy prime minister Devi Lal say they were the ones who forced him into it. Indeed, then textiles minister Sharad Yadav claims full credit for getting the Raja of Manda and a Rajput to do what he would never have been able to achieve: transcend the caste to which he was born.
Similarly, the tenure of the United Front (1996-98), which included the Communist Party of India and was supported from the outside by BJP, saw the introduction of the minimum alternative tax (MAT) and the voluntary disclosure schemes (VDS). But it was the 1997-98 Budget that got Finance Minister P Chidambaram his reputation for dream budgets - because of the tax reforms that he undertook. Chidambaram did what he had to do - and could do - because the authority of the prime minister (IK Gujral) was weak and also because he represented the then powerful Tamil Maanila Congress in a coalition of 13 parties which, it seemed at the time, no one would be able to dethrone.
* * * * *
In the current circumstances, is a Third Front government possible and if it comes to power, what is it likely to do?
The claimants to the Third Front plank are many but the colours of the rainbow are very different. A Left parties-led coalition (for the sake of simplicity, call it Coalition L) currently has on it Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal United, J Jayalalithaa
of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), Janata Dal Secular (JDS), led by HD Deve Gowda, and a few others. If push comes to shove, the Samajwadi Party could join this coalition, but there is no particular enthusiasm among the partners to welcome Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party, given their past experience with his politics.
Because politics is so fragmented, the Trinamool Congress cannot ever be part of this grouping, not when the Left, its primary enemy in West Bengal, is leading it. This leaves a Mamata Banerjee-led coalition (for the sake of simplicity, call it Coalition M) a possible future option. Who else could join this ? Only those with whom the TMC has no contradictions. In concrete terms, this means Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and a handful of smaller groupings. (DIFFERENT PULLS, DIFFERENT PUSHES)
will have nothing to do with either of the two coalitions but it could do business with individual parties. Apart from the fact that its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has torn apart all the constituents of these groupings on their home ground, there is no sync, except with Jayalalithaa. For instance, Modi raged at the way Patnaik had let Odisha rest content in its backwardness; he declared that because of Trinamool Congress, the Third Front may reduce Bengal to the Third World; and he lashed out at Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
The only one Modi has spared is Jayalalithaa. He has not shared a stage with her and there isn't even a whiff of a pre-poll alliance. But he has not attacked her personally at any rally in Tamil Nadu. Moreover, there is shared past history: it was Modi who is reported to have tipped off Jayalalithaa about the coup building up in her backyard by supporters of her companion, Sasikala. The alarm went off when Sasikala's associates began investing large sums of money in Gujarat and Modi began investigating the source of these funds.
But doesn't Jayalalithaa have an alliance with the Left parties in Tamil Nadu ? So how will she (or the Left) justify an alliance with BJP at the centre? As a Left Front leader wryly said: "Those niceties don't matter any more."
If Coalition L and Coalition M are dysfunctional, a Third Front government looks highly unlikely. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is positioning itself as a neutral candidate and has thrown its hat in the ring for the top job. Can AAP's Arvind Kejriwal be the leader that 1979, 1989, 1990 and 1996 threw up?
It doesn't really seem possible. With monumental egoes, limited consensus-building capacities and hardly any common ideological space for political negotiation, AAP can neither be VP Singh nor Charan Singh, nor Deve Gowda, nor Gujral, far less Chandra Shekhar. For the 2014 election, the Third Front is an idea ahead of its time.
IN CASE OF A HUNG HOUSE...
The president of India has to decide which party is the single largest in the Lok Sabha and invite it to form the government.
If there is no one party that is single largest, he can invite the single largest pre-poll alliance to form a government. This is what Shankar Dayal Sharma did as president in 1996 when the Bharatiya Janata Party won 161 MPs. Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to meet Sharma at Rashtrapati Bhavan and said he would like a chance to form a government. Sharma told him: "Yeh leejiye (please take this)" and handed him the invitation for the swearing in.
However, in 2014, one of the prime movers of the anti-communal Third Front, Sitaram Yechury, has ruled out a pre-poll Third Front and said any front will be possible only after the elections are over.
If no prime ministerial candidate is forthcoming and no party is able to form a government, can the president come out and assume charge, responding to popular request, especially if such requests constitute the bulk of elected MPs? This is an option that is being discussed quite openly in Parliament's Central Hall. MPs say this has never happened in India but there is nothing in the Constitution expressly forbidding such an eventuality.