India is too big, too vast and too diverse for a bipolar battle for power. Yet, every election ends up with the demise of the promise of a third alternative. This time around, even the promise of a non-Congress, non-BJP electoral alliance remains stillborn.

Despite the Left Front’s best efforts to bring disparate and often contradictory forces on to a common platform, not a single party of any consequence is willing to forge a national alliance or hold hands for a seat adjustment before the elections.

Even the common “anti-communalism” platform of 11 parties coming together on October 30 to protest recent incidents of communal violence, doesn’t offer an electoral understanding before the 2014 Parliamentary elections. What has really changed after the last Third Front experiment in 1996?

First of all, the Third Front, though a great idea, is something of a political myth. It really was always a ‘second front’ against the ruling Congress or the BJP and never a non-aligned third group of parties or an independent entity.

For instance, when the Congress was first defeated in the Assembly elections of 1967 and Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments took over in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere, it was an experiment in coalition politics by the Centre-Right forces, including the Socialist parties and the RSS-controlled Jan Sangh.

The formation of the Janata Party was a bigger experiment for a ‘second front’ against the Congress by all the forces inimical to the ruling party, except the Communist parties.

The Janata Dal phase

By 1989, the BJP had come into its own as a right wing force, and remained a separate entity, with the Janata Dal occupying the centrist space against the Congress.

The Janata Dal was formed in 1988 with the merger of various groups of the Lok Dal, Congress (S) and V. P. Singh’s Jan Morcha.

It was the Janata Dal that led the National Front government in 1989 and the United Front government in 1996. First the Left and the Right-wing parties supported V.P. Singh to form his government, making it the ‘second front’ against the Congress. The ‘first front’, the Congress, decided to sit in the Opposition, despite being the single largest party with 195 seats.

After the debilitating split in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 1996, the Janata Dal had just 30 members in Parliament, much less than the single largest party, the BJP with 163 MPs, or the second largest party, the Congress, which had 140 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The Janata Dal’s count was even less than that of the CPI(M), which had 32 MPs and the party came to power only because it was propped up by the Congress, the Left and several other regional parties.

Cut to 2013. There is no Janata Dal or any successor that has risen to occupy its centrist space at the national level. It is not because the party has disappeared, it has only got dismembered. It exists, but in parts as regional parties without a national whole. The ruling Janata Dal (U) and the principal Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal of Bihar, the ruling Samajwadi Party party of Uttar Pradesh and the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha and the Opposition Janata Dal (S) of Karnataka are all remnants of the old Janata Dal.

When put together, they still are a potent force. But they remain disparate voices vying for the votes of the middle peasantry and the dominant castes in their respective States, ready to look at the larger picture only during Parliamentary polls.

Regional parties

Local aspirations, concerns and disparities are best articulated by regional parties who are solely dependent on local sentiments for their existence.

The DMK and the Asom Gana Parishad are the best examples of linguistic politics and ethnic identities.

But when a group which never articulated the politics of ethnic, sub-national or caste identity, and which had a national character and vision, breaks into regional parties, it fritters away its destiny for a national role.

Now, Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar are eyeing South Block only as regional satraps and not as competitors within a national alternative to the Congress or the BJP.

In fact, the 1989 elections with their seat adjustments between the Janata Dal and the BJP helped the latter consolidate its position in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

The Janata Dal had 142 seats and the BJP only 89. Even the CPI(M) and CPI benefited from the alliance in UP, winning the Kanpur and Faizabad seats, respectively.

Only a centrist group could forge such a pan-Indian alliance from Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala, and help its alliance partners win seats and grow politically.

Now, the centrist nucleus for a third alternative is missing altogether.

And the BJP or the Congress takes advantage of that vacuum as and when the need arises, turning itself into a point of convergence for all the regional parties to get together to keep another, often dominant, force or ideology out of power.

The 2004 experiment was all about dethroning the BJP. The four Left parties, the CPI(M), CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc, with 61 seats, lent their support from outside to the Congress with just 159 seats, forcing the smaller regional parties into the United Progressive Alliance.

In 2014 too the regional parties are expected to do exceedingly well. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress are poised to be the dominant force in about 150 seats in four States.

But instead of turning themselves into a common platform or a third alternative, they remain islands of opportunity for the BJP or the Congress.

And instead of leading a coalition as in 1989 or 1996, these parties seem to be just set to play second fiddle to either the Congress or the BJP in 2014.