If there was a prize for the longest running farce in Indian politics it would undoubtedly go to the so –called secular parties for their tiresome gimmicks to woo the minority vote.
Like seasonal frogs they surface, as if on cue, on the eve of every election with grand plans for a united anti-BJP, anti-Congress platform variously called the Third Front, the Third Alternative and the Secular Front, but no sooner are they formed than they collapse like a house of cards as petty rivalries, inflated egos and sheer opportunism eventually trump secularism.
Yet predictably enough they are at it again -- tearing themselves apart amid reports of splits and horse-trading even as the usual suspects have announced the formation of an 11-party "Alternative Front" against what its leaders described as the "communal" BJP and "corrupt" Congress.
As an example of extreme déjà vu this one is hard to beat considering that many of these parties were part of a similar attempt in the 2009 elections but that fizzled out amid mutual acrimony. As did many previous 'Fronts' in the 1990s.
Already questions are being raised about the viability of the latest venture given that it has no leader and no common minimum programme beyond the fuzzy promise of pursuing a "democratic, secular, federal and pro-people development agenda".
Forget leadership and programme, it does not even have a name. What the electorate is being sold in the name of a 'democratic, secular and federal' alternative is a skeleton of a vague idea. It is like being sold a puppy.
The explanation being given is that the Front will take a more concrete shape after the elections when, depending on post-poll arithmetic, more parties are expected to join it.
"We do not want to foreclose that possibility by finalising a name and the prime ministerial candidate", said one Front spokesman.
Its leaders have also ruled out any pre-poll alliances among its constituents which means that in some states they may be fighting against each other. The CPI(M) leader Prakash Karat has said that the Front members will be free to form regional alliances as they deem fit and the real task of building up a broader anti-Congress and anti-BJP alliance would begin only after the elections.
The logical question to ask, then, is: so, what is the current exercise about? If the Front’s leaders themselves are not sure about the shape it will take until after the elections then why should the electorate take it seriously?
It is all very confusing for ordinary voters who are left with contradictory messages.
While on the one hand, they are told that the idea is to offer them an alternative to the two main national parties, on the other the message coming through is that nothing is final and it is all up in the air at the moment.
Such confused thinking is a recipe for disaster. It is as if the Front is designed to fail. No wonder it has been greeted with such widespread scepticism even among its potential sympathisers.
Now let’s take a closer look at the Front’s constituents.
The fact is that except the Left and to some extent Nitish Kumar 's JD(U), all its other constituents have a dubious record of making opportunistic alliances even with their main supposed enemies --the Congress and the BJP.
Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party is still part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and, like several other Front constituents, it has not ruled out helping the Congress form a government in return for a suitable reward, or taking its support to form a non-BJP government.
For all their virtuous claims, most of these parties have thrived on narrow sectarian agendas built around caste politics with secularism thrown in as a bait for religious minorities, particularly Muslims.
Their commitment to secularism is even shallower than the Congress party’s which, for all its sins, at least gets the concept even if it doesn’t always practice it.
Essentially they are the Hindu Right’s gift to the nation--a product of the reaction to the the BJP’ s caste and religious prejudices. Remove the BJP from the scene or if the BJP miraculously changes its colours and they will lose their raison d’etre.
As for the much-trumpeted unity of 'secular forces', it is only a mirage. Even before the real campaign has begun, the self -styled secular camp is seething with mutual hostility, and low-level civil war is raging.
Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD is facing a split, Ram Vilas Paswan who grandly quit the BJP-led NDA in protest over the Gujarat riots has joined with the BJP again, and Nitish Kumar is caught up in a touch-me-touch-me-not mode amid accusations that his party is trying to poach Lalu Yadav's people.
Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress would rather sup with the devil than be seen on the same platform as the Left parties ; and then there are Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati -- the Twain that shall never meet. All the three “Ms”-- Mamata, Mulayam and Mayawati—have prime ministerial or at any rate deputy prime ministerial ambitions and will not hesitate to dump their potential 'secular' allies in order to achieve their goal .
For a few plum posts for themselves and their hangers, they will happily sleep with the 'communal' BJP or the 'corrupt' Congress.
Throw the DMK and the AIADMK-- both extremely volatile and unpredictable entities--into the mix and the circus is complete. The talk of an alternative front is of a piece with the smoke-and-mirrors tactics that have come to define secular politics in the country. And this farce played out in the name of secularism and minorities every few years has gone on for so long that it is now in danger of repeating itself as a tragedy.
I say it with gritted teeth, but I wouldn’t mind the BJP winning with a thumping majority if that’s the only way to bring some sanity to 'secular' parties.