All is maya!" So said Adi Shankaracharya centuries ago. And that sums up the so-called Third Front as we stand on the cusp of a General Election.
The Third Front, as it exists today, is a mere illusion. Does it have a common programme to which every constituent subscribes? Who is the chairman or the convenor of the Third Front? If this mob succeeds in coming to power -- probably after conning the Congress -- who shall be the prime minister? Does it possess even those minimal measures of credibility, namely a common list of candidates and an accepted nominee for the prime ministerial chair?
Don't hold your breath waiting for anyone in the Third Front to answer those questions! Their response to everything boils down to: "Everything will be revealed once the elections are over!"
In other words, what the Third Front truly desires is a blank cheque from the people of India.
The Third Front spits on democracy when asked about the top job. How will their prime minister be decided? Behind closed doors, and with only party leaders -- most of whom will not be Lok Sabha MPs -- having a say. At all costs, you see, the people of India must not be given a say in the matter!
The dishonesty is even more apparent when asked if the Third Front is going to have electoral understandings. It will not. Various constituents of the putative Third Front will be fighting each other.
Mayawati, who deserves kudos for her honesty in this instance, has cheerfully announced that the Bahujan Samaj Party shall be putting up candidates in every state, from Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu. In other words, she will be fighting not just the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress but also the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Janata Dal-Secular. Some alliance!
Come to that, would it make a difference even if the Third Front parties got their together and came up with a list of candidates?
Common sense says that it does not have a prayer of winning a majority in the next Lok Sabha.
I said in my last column that the BJP was, for all practical purposes, without any presence on the ground in a list of coastline states (and one Union territory) running from West Bengal to Kerala.
I said that these accounted for 165 Lok Sabha seats. With the possible exception of Orissa -- some would argue with even that -- it is difficult to see how the BJP could win from any of these areas.
Let me now give you the flip side of that equation. As it happens these 165 seats are the bastions of the Third Front. Let us assume that the BSP is part of the Third Front -- which Mayawati denies -- and add Uttar Pradesh's 80 seats to the total.
Third Front apologists might also wish to add Karnataka's 28 seats since H D Deve Gowda's JD-S has a presence in the state.
Add up all of those and you get a grand figure of 273. The magic figure in the Lok Sabha is 272, the barest of bare majorities in a 543-strong House.
Does anyone believe that the Third Front shall win every single one of those 273 seats? That the Congress will make no gains in, say, Kerala (where it was wiped out in 2004)? Or that the BJP will lose every seat in Karnataka (where it won the 2008 assembly polls)? Or that the Samajwadi Party will be wiped out in Uttar Pradesh, and the DMK in Tamil Nadu?
Let us say that the Third Front parties collectively win, say, 137 seats, roughly half of those 273 seats. Let us even assume that they get two-thirds of those constituencies, meaning 182 seats.
Realistically, there is no way that the Third Front is going to win 272 seats, a majority in the Lok Sabha, by contesting just those 273 seats.
So where can the Third Front make up the numbers? The Marxists have been around for decades, and they are confined to West Bengal, Kerala, and Tripura. Mayawati has prime ministerial ambitions, but the reality is that her party has not done particularly well outside Uttar Pradesh.
Of course, the Third Front can ratchet up the numbers by wooing away chunks of the National Democratic Alliance or the United Progressive Alliance. This logic suggests that the various leaders must spend time dancing around, say, the Janata Dal-United, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, or even the Nationalist Congress Party.
But no, both history and logic suggest that the only realistic option is to join hands with the Congress. There is no dearth of precedents, that is what happened both in 1996 and in 2004. It would be more honest to admit this outright, but neither the Congress nor the Third Front can do so. Until, that is, the BJP needs to be kept out in the sacred name of 'secularism'.
I cannot end without showing what this 'secularism' consists of, in one of those states where the BJP is absent. In Kerala there is open talk of bishops sending a list of candidates to the Congress high command in Delhi. Meanwhile the CPI-M and the CPI are snuggling up to the likes of the National Development Front and the People's Democratic Party, Muslim parties that are beyond the fringe of the Muslim League.
Such 'secularism' is a dangerous illusion. Even more so, perhaps, as the sleight of hand called the 'Third Front'.