The Fantasy Four

In 1969, on becoming Chancellor of what was then West Germany, Willy Brandt initiated a programme he called Ostpolitik (eastern policy/politics), entailing softening and normalising relations with East Germany in particular and East Bloc countries in general. Like the “Eastern Question”, the anticipation of chaos that may follow the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire — which exercised Britain and Western Europe for 150 years from the mid-18th century to the end of World War I — Ostpolitik has long gone out of the political lexicon.
This past week, these forgotten terms and expressions came back to memory when there was talk of a new “Federal Front” comprising a quartet of regional parties from eastern Indian states. At one level, the so-called Federal Front would be just another incarnation of the Third Front, a perennial if default formulation every time the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party fail to get enough seats to lead a coalition. Yet, the Federal Front — the East Bloc, if we could name it thus — is not a conventional Third Front. Indeed, it represents one of at least two alternative philosophies — if that exalted word can be used to describe old-fashioned political jockeying — of organising a Third Front.
Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party (SP), represents the conventional Third Front approach. A little over a year ago, the SP swept to power in Uttar Pradesh, winning an absolute majority for the first time in the party’s history. If those results repeated themselves in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Mr Yadav was looking to get 45 odd of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in his state and emerging as the third-largest party in the House. Today, he is not as confident given the anti-incumbency wave against the SP government. Nevertheless,
Mr Yadav hopes to win a strong cluster of seats and, in his dream
scenario, get the Congress to back a perhaps short-lived Third Front government led by him.
The East Bloc is not thinking on these lines. Comprising Naveen Patnaik (Biju Janata Dal or BJD), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-United), Mamata Banerjee (Trinamul Congress) and perhaps Babulal Marandi (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha or JVP), this quartet of state chieftains does not have the aspirations of Mr Yadav. Not one of these leaders sees himself or herself as a prospective Prime Minister in 2014 — unless there is an unexpected, even freakish situation — and they may not even want to be part of the Cabinet in New Delhi. However, they want a strong stake, a persuasive influence and a voice in the capital.
The immediate priorities of all these politicians are state elections and local politics. Jharkhand is likely to go to the polls in November-December 2014 — depending on how long President’s Rule lasts. Orissa sees Assembly elections in April-May 2014. Bihar will have Mr Kumar fight for a third term in the autumn of 2015. In the summer of 2016, Ms Banerjee will seek re-election.
These are the compulsions for the East Bloc members. Attempting to become power-brokers or aspiring for higher office in South Block will side-track them from their mission. It may bring them temporary glory on the national scene but has the potential to cripple them permanently in their provincial bastions.
Indeed, some of the recent actions of the chief ministers who are part of the East Bloc point to their focus areas. If Mr Kumar is breaking ties with the BJP on the issue of Narendra Modi’s ascension, he is doing so with 2015 in mind, rather than 2014. A Nitish-Modi alliance will sweep Bihar in 2014, given the anti-UPA mood. In the Assembly election, however, it could lead to Yadavs and Muslims coming together behind Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. When the natural anti-incumbency against Mr Kumar — after 10 years in office, there is always a disgruntled vote — is added to this, it could leave the JD(U) leader in a difficult predicament. As such, he is gambling on changing the narrative and emerging as the one-man anti-Lalu Bihar force, free of the BJP. It is a make-or-break gamble.
Ms Banerjee is gambling just as hard. By breaking away from the Congress a year ago, she bet on the UPA government not recovering ground and sliding inexorably towards unpopularity and ridicule. A three-way contest in West Bengal in 2014 could give the Communist Party of India (Marxist) some space for manoeuvre but will decimate the Congress. In 2016, Ms Banerjee reckons, the entirety of the anti-Left vote will come to her, including from supporters of the rump Congress. She is attempting exactly what Mr Kumar is in Bihar.
Of the four, Ms Banerjee and Mr Patnaik cannot do deals with the Congress due to local rivalries. Theoretically, Mr Kumar could yet tie up with the Congress — to target the Muslim vote — though his advisers say he would be uncomfortable doing this since he doesn’t trust the Congress and doesn’t want a share of its national unpopularity. Mr Marandi has been open to a Congress alliance in the past but is looking to emerge as the Jharkhand strongman in his own right. Of course, none of these four politicians is promising a tie-up with the BJP either.
So what does the East Bloc hope to achieve in 2014? It is worth noting that all four leaders have a fairly clean reputation in terms of financial corruption and rent-seeking. In the past, they have not shown the sort of hunger for lucrative ministries — “ATM ministries”, as these are called — that regional parties from southern India, especially Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, have actively sought out. The East Bloc chieftains don’t have a retinue of family members and cronies who need to be promoted with ministerial berths and public positions.
What these chief ministers do want is specific deals for their states — grants and credit; environmental clearances for industrial projects; freedom to spend development funds across different heads. As more than one MP from the East Bloc parties has suggested, it is entirely possible that at least some of these parties may be amenable to a “coalition of coalitions” type of government in 2014. One coalition will rule, and get issue-based, outside support from the East Bloc. It’s a novel idea. Don’t rule it out.

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