Do Indian Voters Have Too Many Choices?

When national elections are held this April and May in India, the ballot will offer up a banquet of choices for Indian voters.
Rahul Gandhi is just one of many would-be prime ministers on the Indian electoral menu. Photographer: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images      

First-time visitors to India are always amazed at the menus in small restaurants. On offer are South Indian, Mughlai, Chinese and Continental cuisine, pizza and burgers, and even Mexican dishes, as well as Jain dishes (vegetarian, but without root vegetables) -- and sometimes "upvas," or foods for fasting days.

It's become clear that when national elections are held this April and May, the ballot will offer almost as wide a range of choices to the Indian voter. Up to this point, the main choice was between the two major national parties: the Congress party (which has been in power for the last 10 years at the hub of a coalition government), led by Rahul Gandhi, and the ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party (the main opposition party, which opinion polls strongly suggest will rout the Congress in 2014), led by Narendra Modi.

But in December, a powerful outlier emerged in the form of the fledgling Aam Aadmi ("Common Man") Party, which surged ahead as a popular anti-corruption movement and now has the electoral backing of many middle-class Indians, who see it as a force that will clean up politics. And last week, a group of 11 mainly regional political parties, with a cumulative strength of 92 out of 545 seats in the current Parliament, announced that they were coming together as a "Third Front" in the hope of forming the next government in New Delhi.

Indians are familiar with Third Front minority governments, having seen as many as three of them in the last 25 years. One might even say that the prospect of these rainbow coalitions -- a bit of an understatement when one looks at the motley crew of socialists, communists, combinationists, nativists, "secularists" and plain opportunists that make up the latest edition of the Third Front -- is built into the DNA of Indian democracy. Third Front governments composed of a bevy of regional satraps are destined, every so often, to infiltrate the corridors of power at the center, when the two national parties find that their messages haven't hasn't caught on in all corners of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse democracy on the planet. And they must bide their time (and at all costs keep one another out of office) by propping up a minority government -- at least for a while. None of the last three Third Front governments in New Delhi has lasted more than two years.

Not only does the latest news reposition the individual parties of the Third Front in the eyes of the undecided voter, but it also greatly enlarges the palette of post-poll possibilities -- not just in terms of the Third Front offering support to, or receiving it from, one of the national parties (almost certainly the Congress), but also in terms of who from the top brass of the Third Front could be the next prime minister at the others' expense.

So, depending on how things go in the elections for these regional bosses, the next prime minister of India could well be J. Jayalalithaa, a former film star who is now chief minister of Tamil Nadu; Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar; Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of Odisha; or Mulayam Singh Yadav, father of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav. Perhaps there's even Prakash Karat, the head of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who once debated the relevance of Marxism to India with historian Ramachandra Guha.

There must be something so quixotic about Indian democracy if Modi, the current front-runner to become the next prime minister of India, knows that he has to drag his party closer to the 200-seat mark (a majority would be 272) if he is to stand a chance of heading the new government. But if the dice were to roll the right way, even 30 seats in Parliament would be enough for the leader of one of the smaller parties.

Seen another way, the ideas of what is big and what is small in Indian national politics have undergone a substantial redefinition in the last 20 years. The Congress's automatic hold at the center for most of the first four decades after independence has slipped away, and the federalism of India's constitutional setup has flowered. A slew of new political parties have cropped up with limited but locally relevant agendas, and they are stoutly resistant to taking dictation from the sometimes arrogant voice of the center.

No one has analyzed the implications of the rise of the smaller parties in India better than the veteran journalist M.J. Akbar, who once wrote that "The next General Election will test whether the voter has lost his mistrust of small parties. Small is a comparative term. It had one meaning when Congress was a giant; small has become much bigger now that both Congress and BJP are in the 100-150-seat band."

Akbar, the most gifted metaphor maker of India's political columnists, was also wise to advise against the use of the moniker "Third Front," "that jaded name for an amoebic coalition that is never quite sure which part has fallen off and what has joined up." He suggested instead that "Federal Front" would be a more meaningful name, pointing in the direction of at least one coherent principle. But the writer Hasan Suroor saw no difference between the current Third Front and past ones: "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."

Suroor is right. A potential Third Front minority government would be politically unstable, and not just for external reasons: It would also have too many internal contradictions on matters of policy, personality clashes all around, and not a big enough vision for a society of 1.2 billion people. Markets would likely react even more adversely to such a government than they would to a return of the moribund Congress-led alliance. No one believes that the Third Front is as united as it makes itself out to be. It's a front in more ways than one: an alliance, and also a facade.

But the truth is that Modi probably fears this gaggle of seasoned politicians and deal makers much more than he does the relatively lightweight top brass of the Congress party, especially because, if it had to choose, the Third Front would choose a deal with a "secular" Congress over one with the "communal" BJP, even if this distinction is more rhetorical than real. Modi wasted no time in attacking the new formation. "I have seen in Gujarat that flamingos arrive before winter and vanish after winter," he said with a picturesque turn of phrase at a rally last week. "The Third Front are like migratory birds which will vanish after the elections."

But it seems almost certain at this stage that any future government in India will be a minority one, emerging from the flux of a hung parliament (the implications of this have been sensitively analyzed by the journalist Kumar Ketkar). The magic figure of 272 is beyond the means of any one formation, especially with the Aam Aadmi Party threatening to fragment the result even further. Even a figure as authoritative and authoritarian as Modi must reconcile himself to running not just a country but (and this is a more delicate task) also a coalition. That means the bigger parties need the smaller ones more than the other way around, with the likely consequence that big ideas might be sacrificed for smaller ones and coarse compromises.

And so, come results day on May 16, the new-old Third Front will almost certainly be in the news for some time -- if for no other reason than perhaps because some of its constituents decided to break with their own camp, thereby burying the idea of a Third Front. Not for too long, though: until about 2019.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.