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Why has a third front failed to make a mark in Gujarat elections?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 01-10-2017 Maulik Pathak

Ahmedabad: On 19 September when former Gujarat chief minister and an ex-Congress leader Shankersinh Vaghela announced his decision to join Jan Vikalp and counter the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming Gujarat elections, he said that it was a myth that a third front cannot emerge in Gujarat.

Vaghela, citing examples of states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir, said that he was confident of a new non-Congress, non-BJP alternative emerging in the upcoming state elections.

Gujarat’s politics has been bipolar for the last two decades, with the Congress and BJP as the two contenders. Attempts to build a third front have remained unsuccessful.

Apart from Jan Vikalp, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are also in fray to form a third front in Gujarat in the state elections that are likely to be held in December this year.

In the past, parties attempting to form a third alternative have ended up merging with the ruling or the main opposition party.

Take the instance of the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) that was floated by ex-chief minister Keshubhai Patel in 2012.

A BJP strongman, Patel had scripted BJP’s victory in Gujarat in 1995. GPP managed to win only two seats in 2012 state elections even as the BJP won 115 seats. Later, GPP was merged with BJP and Patel announced his retirement from politics in 2014.

“Whenever a new alternative has tried to emerge in Gujarat, it has always ended up by merging with the ruling party or the main opposition party. In the sixties during Congress’s rule, the Swantantra Party was the main opposition party. Then when the Janata Party came into the picture it replaced Swantantra Party that was merged with it. In the nineties, the BJP replaced Janata Party and became the main opposition party,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a political expert and a retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor.

Even Vaghela, who was with the BJP before he revolted and became chief minister in 1996, had floated his own outfit that was later merged with the Congress.

To be sure, the narrative of states like neighbouring Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh is also bipolar and the elections there are seen as contests between the Congress and the BJP.

The NCP, which has two MLAs in the state assembly, has fought the elections with the Congress in the past. This time around, however, it is looking to contest on its own, especially in the 52 seats in Saurashtra region. The Congress last month called off its alliance with the NCP for Gujarat following the Rajya Sabha elections where NCP MLAs cross-voted against the Congress candidate.

The dominant ethos for the people of Gujarat, who are mainly businessmen and traders, has never been very high on regional sentiments and they have chosen to side with big parties that have a national dominance as well, according to political analyst Vidyut Joshi, former vice-chancellor at Bhavnagar University.

A senior BJP leader who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while Congress has been out of power in the state for over two decades now, its vote share has not gone below 30-35% in all these years. As a result, it leaves very little space for a new party to make inroads.

BJP has met some serious setback in its socio-political-economic base in the state in the last two years as the state has seen uprisings from the Patidar, Dalit and OBC community. While the BJP has set an ambitious target of winning 150+ seats, the Congress has kept a target of 125 seats.

“Unlike many other states including Maharashtra, a strong regional identity of Gujarat has never emerged except for the Narmada dam movement. The people of Gujarat never saw the state in isolation and their interests have been aligned with national interests. As a result regional parties or parties apart from the two main national parties, have not been successful in Gujarat,” said Ghanshyam Shah.

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