Leaders of several regional parties running state governments have expressed themselves in favour of a Federal Front ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. However, they have not gone beyond this pious declarations of intent. None of them has indicated what policies or programmes he or she would like the Front to pursue.
The programmes of the small national parties and the regional parties are largely based on the interests of specific social or economic groups which constitute their support base. Many of them owe their success at the regional level to populist measures. This is not enough to succeed at the national level, unless all that they want are a few crumbs like one or two berths in a shaky, short-lived coalition government.
The days of picking a stop-gap Prime Minister for the limited purpose of keeping the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power are over. There is no one around now who can play midwife at the birth of a Third Front government, the way late Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet did. Even if someone comes up, current realities will not permit a repetition of the old game.
The country is at a stage where it needs a stable government to maintain steady economic growth. What it needs is not a one-man government of the kind Narendra Modi has provided during the past four years, but one which has ample talent and is able to function as a team.
Some regional leaders are widely credited with prime ministerial ambitions. Such aspirations are legitimate, but then, at the very top, there is room only for one person. Keeping in view the interests of the country all must be ready to join hands behind the one chosen to lead the team as a first among equals.
In Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time, the BJP started the practice of naming its prime ministerial candidate in advance. This introduced an element of presidential election in the electoral process. The Federal Front will do well not to emulate it. Its constituents must demonstrate their faith in the democratic system by laying emphasis on policies instead of personalities.
A combination of parties which wishes to be seen as a serious contender for power at the Centre must place before the people, before the elections, a concrete action plan covering domestic as well as foreign issues, so that voters can make an intelligent choice on an informed basis.
A lack of clarity about the emerging Opposition Front recently led to contradictory responses from BJP President Amit Shah. When Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao talked of a Federal Front he said, “I wholeheartedly welcome the Third Front/Federal Front proposal.”
He probably viewed it at that stage as something he could win over through fair or foul means, if the need arises. But with the Karnataka Assembly elections and the recent bye-elections showing that a united Opposition could sway people against the BJP, his tune and tone changed.
“Afraid of the Modi flood, snakes, bitches, dogs and mongooses, all are trying to contest the polls collectively,” he said.
Planting confusion in the mind of the BJP’s master strategist may not be a bad idea, but the Federal Front cannot afford to confound voters in the process. They must be able to cast their votes in favour of the Federal Front nominees with a fair idea of what they are plumping for.
What domestic and foreign policies will the Federal Front pursue if it has the opportunity to lead the government at the Centre? Will its policies differ from those pursued by the Congress and the BJP? If so, how? These are the questions that have to be answered.
It is easy to condense a whole range of economic approaches into a single word: development.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used it as a mantra, hiding a whole lot of sins behind it - from crony capitalism to crimes against the poor and the vulnerable, perpetrated with impunity. The recent killing of 13 people - unarmed protesters and mere passers-by - in Thoothukudi, where the Sterlite Copper smelting plant in wreaking havoc on the environment, exposed the manner in which governments are promoting the ease of doing business at the cost of the ease of living of people.
All parties, big and small, whatever their ideological predilections, must realistically acknowledge that the country cannot opt out of the global economy. A grave weakness of the current order is that it works to the great advantage of a few and the gross disadvantage of many. India is saddled with the burden of 270 million of the world’s poor. It cannot leave the fate of so large a section of the population to the mercies of a rapacious corporate sector.
Under the Constitution, India is a union of states, not a federation. Since the Constitution came into force there has been augmentation of the Centre’s powers and the consequent weakening of such federalism as it originally contained. Prevailing conditions may have necessitated the changes which were made from time to time. The experience of the last 71 years, especially Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, has shown that the core values of the Constitution are liable to be distorted under a dispensation whose commitment to democracy is suspect.
Rajiv Gandhi took a welcome step when he amended the Constitution to devolve certain powers from the states to the local bodies. Neither he nor his successors took the next logical step of devolving powers from the Centre to the states.
The complaints voiced by several states after the appointment of the 15th Finance Commission point to the need to take a fresh look at the current arrangements relating to the division of financial powers and the principles that govern the allocation of resources. The unedifying spectacle of states standing before the Centre as supplicants must become a thing of the past.
Serious deliberations are needed to bring about clarity of thought on such issues and formulate firm proposals which are acceptable to all the parties concerned and become part of the programme of the Federal Front.
On issues such as the position of religious, social and linguistic minorities, the Federal Front has to lay down a sound policy in view of the threats posed in the recent past by ill-conceived attempts by some groups to impose homogeneity, riding roughshod over the time-honoured concept of unity in diversity.
The parties which have accepted the Federal Front concept in principle must form a task force to hold the widest discussions with the stakeholders and come up with proposals which the political leadership may consider incorporating in an action programme. Federal Front partners must, as far as possible, have electoral understandings only with parties which are willing to accept key elements of its action programme.
The time at the disposal of the parties to formulate the programme may be much less than they imagine. If Modi feels that things are not going his way, he may opt for early elections if only to deny the Opposition parties the time they need to get their act together.
Views expressed are author's own