NOTWITHSTANDING what they call the ‘first round loss’ in the battle for power, there is a sense of nervous excitement among most leaders of the Third Front these days. The Front is confident that the BJP Government will come crashing down on or before May 31 when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha, and that their leader H.D. Deve Gowda will be sworn in as Prime Minister shortly afterwards.
"He is our prime minister-in-waiting. Vajpayee is but a pretender to the throne," said senior Janata Dal leader Ram Vilas Paswan on Saturday. The confidence stemmed from the fact that three days after Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister, the Third Front comprising the Janata Dal, the Left parties and regional groups like the DMK, the TMC, the TDP and the AGP was remained totally intact. What came as a further boost was the signal received from the younger lot of Congress leaders like Rajesh Pilot and Ashok Gehlot—fast emerging as the new Young Turks in the party—that they would not let P.V. Narasimha Rao renege on the commitment to give unconditional support to a government led by Deve Gowda.
The confidence level was remarkable, particularly in the light of the fact that less than a week earlier the Third Front had appeared to be floundering, unable to find a leader acceptable to all sections, and running to an unwilling V.P. Singh virtually begging him to take charge. The move to present a solid, credible coalition as an alternative had also crumbled in the face of the refusal by the central committee of the CPI(M) to reconsider their decision not to join the Third Front Government, but to support it from the outside.
Things had appeared hopelessly adrift even after Deve Gowda’s election as the leader. The uneasy relationship with the Congress, without which there was little chance of keeping the BJP out of power, seemed to be developing into an open confrontation as senior Janata Dal leaders charged Rao with deliberately delaying giving the President the letter about the Congress support to Deve Gowda and of being involved in a conspiracy to keep the Third Front out. But after the initial shock of the BJP having taken over power in South Block, the drift was quickly arrested.
Much of the credit for this, undoubtedly, belongs to Chan-drababu Naidu and M. Karunanidhi, the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Naidu had organised the marshalling of his party’s MLAs in ’84 when N.T. Rama Rao had been dispossessed of power in the state, and he put his organisational skills to full use. The first step was the formation of a steering committee with the top leaders of all supporting parties in the Third Front. This gave them a vested interest in keeping the flock of MLAs intact and making them less susceptible to allurements by the BJP.
Care was also taken to keep the channels of communication with both the Congress leadership and the emerging Young Turks in the party open. That the Third Front leaders had understood the need to avoid confrontation with the Congress was evident on Friday when the Janata Dal spokesperson welcomed V.N. Gadgil’s assertion of his party’s commitment to bring down the BJP Government. A day later, informal consultations for the election of the Speaker—the first parliamentary test of the BJP’s strength—had begun.
However, senior leaders of the Third Front are still wary. "Rao will not dare bail out the BJP Government with support or abstentions when the confidence motion comes up for voting. But how can we be sure what he will do thereafter?" said a senior Janata Dal leader.
The fear is that if the BJP Government is defeated, the President may invite the leader of the second largest party to form the Government. And according to the information received by the Third Front leaders, Rao loyalists still want him to keep that option open. That could cause a real crisis. For, under no circumstance can parties like the DMK, the TMC or even the CPI(M) be prevailed upon to support a government led by Rao.
Once again the Third Front leaders are hoping that inner party compulsions will keep Rao away from his famed Machiavellian manoeuvres. "Rao has managed to keep his leadership intact only after assuring his detractors that the party would support the effort for a non-BJP alternative. If he goes back on that, his own position could be seriously threatened," said a CPI(M) leader.
But, for the moment, the goal is to dislodge the BJP Government. And till then what prevails is the cautious optimism of seeing their prime minister-in-waiting sworn in.