Is there middle space in Indian politics? This was the great dilemma before the Socialists in the 1950s and 1960s. The nationalist movement, which kneaded the contours of ideology, did not offer much clarity. Mahatma Gandhi broadened the Congress umbrella to such an extent that every ideology could claim to be a rib. His creed was simple and effective as long as it worked: the nation belonged to everyone, and therefore everyone belonged to the struggle against the British. And so members of the Hindu Mahasabha co-existed with the Muslim League, till the early Thirties, and G.D. Birla shared space with Communists in the Congress tent till 1942.
The flaw in this elixir was evident each time an important decision had to be taken. Without the presence of the Mahasabha the Congress might have come to terms with the Constitutional formula proposed by Jinnah at the 1928 all-parties conference in Calcutta, for instance. By the late 1920s, Netaji Subhas Bose had begun to sound out Jawaharlal Nehru on his concerns about Congress' commitment to socialism, and after the Tripuri session, Bose was convinced that the only option left to him was to split and form his own party, the All India Forward Bloc.Image 2nd
Other Socialists, led principally by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Nath Pai, left the Congress after India became free. Unity proved as elusive as socialism, and they split into the Praja Socialist Party and the Samyukta Socialist Party. Neither found any traction in electoral politics; the people remained loyal to Gandhi's heir, Jawaharlal, and the Congress. Denied middle ground, most of the PSP merged into Congress; Jawaharlal was delighted to welcome them back. Ashok Mehta was rewarded with a place in the Cabinet, while the "Young Turk", Chandra Shekhar, went on to create history at the party level by winning an election to the working committee without the support of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Dr Lohia's SSP retained its anti-Congress radicalism, and sought a solution in "United Front" formations, which included the Jana Sangh and had a working, if arm's length, relationship with the majority faction of the Left, the CPI(M). The crisis of the Seventies provoked authoritarian tendencies within the Congress, and drove most of the non-Congress parties into a unique merger. This was too good to last, not least because electoral success in 1977 brought power, and power inflated petty egos into grand bubbles that had to burst. Non-Congress politicians went back to their old shells, sometimes redecorated with fresh names. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, for instance, became the Bharatiya Janata Party; and the Lohia-ite Mulayam Singh Yadav created the Socialist Party, while Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar became embedded eventually in the Janata Dal(U). A national formation had disintegrated into parts of its sum, but, interestingly, the parts became larger than the whole as they adopted regional identities.
Vishwanath Pratap Singh made a serious effort to create middle space at the nationwide level when he sought to build on his election triumph in 1989 by spinning out the Mandal report. It did not work because he was an individual without an institution. The tension between a leader's personal proclivities, often no more than a desire to sustain a family hierarchy, and the collaborative demands of a larger structure, has been the biggest impediment to a successful "Third Front".Image 3rd
Can Sharad Pawar succeed where so many predecessors have failed? He has sent, or re-sent, an early signal indicating that he is more comfortable in a Third Front than in his current alliance with the Congress. It is perfectly legitimate in politics to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, but you need the latter's fangs and the former's feet. Pawar is shrewd enough to hone the combination, but the more interesting point is the timing. Why make this pitch with four years left for an election, unless there is the possibility of an earlier election?
There are four models open to non-Congress parties: disparate regional ambitions; the 1967 pattern of a United Front, which was partially successful; the unity of 1977, which was exhilarating while it lasted; and the V.P. Singh balancing act, in which there is an implicit understanding between middle and right, without this being made too obvious to the voter.
There is some evidence that the need for prevarication might be unnecessary. In Bihar Nitish Kumar has managed an extraordinary feat in reshaping the image of the local BJP. He has prevented social conflict and concentrated on good governance, the two fundamental requirements for electoral victory. He is likely to get enough of the Muslim vote to return to power; this, in turn, will propel him towards the focal point of a larger understanding. He was a junior minister in V.P. Singh's government, which survived with support from both the Communists and the BJP; he clearly learnt far more than his seniors from Singh.
There is middle space in Indian politics, but it is full of potholes. The ride will be bumpy; there might be accidents. But it could still be the pathway to a destination.