As India prepares for general elections, eleven regional parties have joined forces in a bid to become a serious contender to the country's two main national outfits. DW examines the new bloc and its potential impact.
Until recently, there had only been two major contenders in the Indian parliamentary elections due in April/May this year: the Congress party-led UPA coalition, which has been in power since 2004, and the opposition BJP-led NDA.
But on February 25, this changed as eleven regional parties came together to found a new coalition. Dubbed "Third Front," the new political bloc aims to give voters an alternative to the traditional national outfits.
The alliance is made up of four left-wing parties and seven regional ones from politically crucial states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, among others. With a total of 92 seats, the coalition is currently the third largest grouping in the 545-member lower house of Indian parliament.
Regional parties have become increasingly important at the national stage in recent years, as no single party has won a parliamentary majority since 1989.
In light of this development, coalition politics have become the norm in the world's largest democracy with both Congress and the BJP party entering into alliances with local political groupings to form national governments, giving regional leaders considerable power over decision-making.
Against this backdrop, the announcement to form the 'Third Front' made national headlines. "We need an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP. That's why we, the leaders of the 11 parties, resolved today to work together," Prakash Karat, leader of the Communist Party of India, said at a press conference in New Delhi.
The parties' leaders declared that they would strive to end rampant graft, protect secularism and implement "pro-people" development policies in the vast country, while at the same time accusing Congress of corruption and labeling the BJP "divisive" and thus "posing a challenge to the secular edifice of the country."
The response from the main national parties has been swift. While the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi accused the new front of wanting to make India "third rate," a Congress minister brushed off its importance by saying that the idea of such coalitions has been “the most enduring mirage of Indian politics."
Observers are skeptical about the ability of the new bloc to remain together, and believe the alliance move was driven solely by electoral calculations. According to New-Delhi-based political analyst Smruti Pattanaik, the "Third Front" is just a coalition of convenience between disparate forces and interest groups.
"They don't have a common ideology and you can't have a front whose only basis for coming together is their opposition to BJP and Congress," Pattanaik told DW.
This view is shared by P. Muthaiah, a political science professor at the Osmania University in Hyderabad. "This coalition is not a homogenous group and its formation is only an electoral tactic to win the elections," said Muthaiah, adding that these parties are likely to enter into new alliances that suit their interests immediately after the polls.
A missing candidate
There is also uncertainty surrounding the new bloc's candidate for the post of prime minister. While the BJP party announced Modi as its PM nominee, and Rahul Gandhi is presumed to be Congress' de facto candidate, the leaders of the "Third Front" said a decision in this regard would be made only after the vote.
According to the latest opinion polls, regional parties are set to win a significant number of seats, with some analysts expecting them to secure victory in more than 200 constituencies.
Even though the current poll results suggest Modi to be the people's choice for the PM post, it is unclear whether either the NDA or the UPA would win the 272 seats needed to form the next government. This could put the new coalition in a favorable position in the aftermath of the vote.
In the event of a hung parliament, analysts believe the "Third Front" could play a critical role in determining who would come to power. "It is likely that these regional political leaders may bargain and join either a BJP-led or Congress-led coalition, or that they form a government with outside support from any of the two national parties," Pattanaik told DW.
The political analyst added, however, that such a government would not be stable. India has had regional-party coalition governments in the past: once in 1989 and other one between 1996 and 1998. The alliances, however, did not last long and failed to remain in office until the end of their respective terms.
There are also concerns that a government bogged down under the weight of coalition politics would be both ineffective and indecisive. Experts argue that this could potentially lead to a policy paralysis which would have a disastrous impact on the country's economic and social development.
At a recent election campaign rally, Modi compared the "Third Front" to "migratory birds which will vanish after the elections." He said that what India truly needed was a "strong government" at its center, capable of bringing "real development" to the country.