India: Two lines in search of a third front

This article, written by Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya, is reproduced, with thanks, from the December 1998 issue of


, the organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).

A little more than six months ago, the United Front was in power. Today it is irretrievably lost in oblivion. The tryst with power of this front of more than a dozen parties had lasted for more than twelve months, albeit in two instalments. But once out of power, it took hardly ten days for the exuberance to evaporate. Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union had triggered off its simultaneous disintegration, the United Front’s exit from power too brought in its wake its unseemly dissolution. In fact, it was on the rapidly decomposing yet unclaimed corpse of the United Front that the BJP-led coalition rode to power.

It was not quite unexpected though. The United Front had never been a stable arrangement with a consistent political perspective. Its entire genesis lay in the specificity of the 1996 post-poll situation; power-sharing and not shared history of struggle or a shared vision of a secular-democratic alternative was the cementing bond that held together the diverse national and regional parties in a single front. Behind the effusive discourse of `coalition era’, `politics of consensus’ and `new federalism’, lay a series of sordid compromises on the part of the official left: uncritical endorsement of every misdeed of the so-called secular allies a la Laloo Prasad and Mulayam Singh, backdoor collaboration with the Congress, shameless surrender to the neo-liberal pro-imperialist economic package of the erstwhile Congress government and its glorification in the guise of a common minimum programme, still bigger betrayals in the course of its implementation with systematic exclusion of every positive promise made in the programme.

No wonder, then, that in spite of the best attempts of an octogenarian EMS to theorise the United Front as a progressive alliance between the working class and the forward-looking sections of the Indian bourgeoisie, the illusions of `power’ sought to be sown by the CPI leadership and Jyoti Basu’s grudges against the `historic blunder’ allegedly committed by his own party, the UF could never generate much of an enthusiasm among the overwhelming majority of Left ranks. Few tears were therefore shed after its collapse, even official bards of the UF did not bother to write its epitaph. Unsung, died the UF in the golden jubilee of India’s independence.

The farcical end of the United Front should have provoked a critical review of the approach adopted by the CPI and CPI(M) towards their bourgeois allies. More so when the two parties went in for their respective party congresses soon after the UF’s exit. But instead the agenda came to be dominated by the question of the two parties’ relationship with Congress. Jyoti Basu successfully pressed for a resurrection of his agenda of `historic blunder’ while Surjeet’s blatant bid to galvanise Sonia Gandhi into `action’ even before poll results had completely poured in had to be rebuffed by the party If there was any curiosity in the outside world about the outcome of the CPI and CPI(M) party congresses, it was only to know whether the two parties had shed the last vestige of `anti-Congressism’ and were now ready to go the whole hog in collaboration with the Congress.

The implications of such a Congress-Communist bonhomie were of course not similar for the two parties. For the CPI, which had once embraced the Congress in the 70s to thwart what it had then perceived as the fascist threat, the question of political co-operation with the Congress never really stopped haunting the party. But for the CPI(M), which has always sought to demarcate itself from its (M)-less partner on this score, relationship with the Congress could not but be a sore point of inner-party doubts and debates.

Time was when the ideologues of the CPI(M) used to rationalise and even glorify their united front practice as transitional steps towards the eventual emergence of a people’s democratic front; when opposition to, or equidistance from, both Congress and BJP used to be a basic underlying assumption in their discourse. Now the attempt was to bury it all and carry the party into a qualitatively new relationship with the Congress, well beyond tactical synchronisation and parliamentary co-ordination into a stage of strategic collaboration. It is against this backdrop of the threat of a total volte face that we have to appreciate the calls for a third front which continued to reverberate in the two party congresses and pressure from ranks which compelled the over-enthusiastic advocates of Congress-Communist co-operation and secular front to limit themselves to the nuanced rhetoric of `issue-based support from outside’! To the discerning political observer, the `anachronistic’ survival of the third front in the social-democratic discourse therefore could not but reflect an underlying element of struggle and tension over the future tactical course of the two older communist parties. Some `friendly’ newspaper reports even suggested that the CPI(M)’s Calcutta Congress had stressed the desirability of expanding the party’s range of political allies to include Left parties outside the ambit of the existing Left Front, the CPI(ML) not excluded.

Having, however, expressed rhetorical reverence to the politics of a Third Front and thereby assuaged the apprehensive feelings of the party ranks, the leaders of CPI(M) and CPI are back to `business as usual’. The measures that have been adopted so far to facilitate the formation of a third front have been a series of meetings with DMK and TMC leaders. Illusions are also being spread about the possibility of weaning way a few prodigal partners – erstwhile UF constituents cum BJP’s current allies like TDP and AGP – back to the third front course!

Meanwhile new meanings are being added every day to the CPI(M)’s `principled and firm’ refusal to have any truck with the RJD. First, Surjeet said the refusal related only to Bihar, elsewhere and on the national level the two parties could as well work together. And now he says, the question of political co-operation with the RJD in Bihar will be discussed when it comes up! Reports coming from Bihar however have it that the co-operation had never ceased in the first place. Two CPI(M) MLAs had reportedly voted for the RJD nominee and not for the official CPI candidate in the last Rajya Sabha election. And now an undeclared seat adjustment deal has been clinched with the RJD in the by-election to the Purnea assembly seat.

But most importantly, feelers are daily being sent to the Congress indicating the CPI(M)’s readiness, nay alacrity, for a new chapter of Congress-Communist co-operation. The official search for third front allies has been officially put on hold in view of the 25 November Assembly elections and every hint has been give to make it clear that the party considers the Congress to be the real alternative to BJP in these states. And only the other day, Jyoti Basu had the opportunity to brush up his Nehru – he reportedly borrowed voluminous books on and by Nehru from the Calcutta libraries while doing his homework for his November 13 `Jawaharlal Nehru speech’ in Delhi at the invitation of Sonia Gandhi!

While welcoming the talk of the third front in official Left circles, we can therefore never lose sight of the unfolding practice of the CPI(M) and CPI in real life which is only taking these parties closer to the Congress rather than to any viable and meaningful third front. It is also important to make the following few distinctions in this context.

If the whole concept of a third front is subjected to the overriding imperative of effecting an immediate ouster of the BJP-led coalition within the present configuration of Parliament, it can only be a prelude to or an apology for forging some sort of an effective political alliance with the Congress. Only when the agenda of abolition of the saffron rule is freed from the narrow confines of a numbers game within the present Lok Sabha (we have had enough of the liberal `democratic’ plea that the people don’t want another election, please!) and taken to the terrain of a vigorous and widespread popular political mobilisation in the field of mass action, can we take a real step towards a third front.

Secondly, a real third front has to seriously address itself to the growing danger of bipolarity in Indian politics with the entire political space being sought to be colonised by a bourgeois duopoly of two coalitions, if not two parties. Moreover, such a bipolarity as we may have between the BJP and the Congress, has only strengthened the continuing shift to the right in every sphere of public policy and discourse. Do we now not have enough experience and evidence to recognise the spiralling escalation of competitive rightwing politics and economics between the Congress and BJP over the last 15 years or so? This rightwing thrust can only be countered by a vigorous ideological and political assertion of the Left identity which is precisely what has been allowed to be obscured and watered down in the name of broad unity of secular forces.

Thirdly, is it not time to recognise the simple fact that the politics of uncritical alliance with bourgeois parties has almost reached a point of saturation? And it is no longer delivering the goods even from a short-term pragmatic point of view. If the National Front in the late 80s and early 90s had been unable to stem the rise of the BJP, the United Front experience has failed to pre-empt the saffron brigade’s march to power. It is patently pointless to try and recycle the same United Front with a bit of editing here and there.

Moreover, what was wrong with the National Front and more so with the United Front was its utter programmatic bankruptcy and lack of principles. Till such time as the Laloo Prasad Yadav government began to totter under the gathering weight of the fodder scam, the CPI and CPI(M) kept on not only rallying behind, but actually glorifying, Bihar’s homespun `messiah of secularism’. If the BJP has come to emerge as a frontline opposition party in Bihar, the fact must also be attributed to the official Left’s inaction and inability, even refusal, to assert its political independence. If Left unity is important, it is important precisely because it can make that assertion a reality. A united Left asserting its own ideological and political independence in no uncertain terms even while tactically co-operating with the available bourgeois opposition against saffron fascism, against every obnoxious expression of right reaction in public life, does have the capacity to significantly change the political environment and ideological climate in favour of Left and democratic forces.

Even as they are forced to pay lip service to the notion of some kind of third front, the leaders of CPI(M) and CPI are yet to address themselves to the urgency of bringing about a broad-based unity of the Left as the backbone of a popular resistance to the fascist threat. Unable to break new political grounds in this direction, they often try to delude Left ranks by projecting the existing co-operation among mass organisations as a model of a broader Left unity or at any rate as a stop-gap arrangement to that end. This is of course far from the reality. The co-operation that now exists among the Left-led mass organisations is still quite limited and sectional in nature. At any rate, it lacks the cutting edge of a mass political movement. Obscuring the critical difference between a joint action of mass organisations and a united political campaign of Left and democratic forces can only amount to `elevating’ the former to some kind of institutionalised economism.

As the saffron brigade in power finds itself increasingly discredited and faced with an irate and disillusioned populace, it is indeed time to move towards a `broad-based Left confederation rooted in a common programme of struggle’ as urged so forcefully by Comrade Nagbhushan Patnaik in his last address, delivered at the 17th Conference of the CPI in Chenna. `Political co-operation among all sections of the Left,’ appealed Comrade Nagbhushan, `must become the primary agenda today and this co-operation must now enter a decisive phase of popular political assertion of the united Left. I know, our differences will not go away in one day, but that must not prevent us from marching together with mutual respect and striking together with all our combined strength against our common enemy’.