The CPI(M) has advocated the need for a third alternative in Indian politics. It was the first Party to initiate moves for its formation. As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, the third alternative is necessary to be built so that there is an alternative to the Congress and the BJP. But what should be the nature of this alternative and how it should be created requires looking back and learning from the lessons of such attempts in the past two decades.

In the days when the Congress was the dominant party at the Centre and till the eighties when the monopoly of Congress rule had to be broken the CPI(M) had fought against the economic policies, corruption and misrule of the Congress by trying to unite other Left, democratic and secular forces. Even at that time, the CPI(M) was opposed to having any alliance or understanding with the BJP. Instead of an anti-Congress alliance, the CPI(M) and the Left stood for a secular non-Congress unity that would exclude the BJP. This is because the BJP stands for rightwing communal politics which are divisive and disruptive of people’s unity. At the time of the formation of the National Front in 1988, the Left insisted that bringing the BJP into its fold would be unacceptable and this firm stand contributed to the National Front being formed without its participation. Later in the 1989 parliament elections, despite the Left’s opposition, some sections of the National Front had a seat adjustment with the BJP. The bitter experience of the BJP pulling down the government on the Ram temple issue and fomenting communal tensions and violence, led to the rupture between the BJP and those secular parties who were earlier susceptible to the appeal of an “anti-Congress unity”.

In 1991, the National Front-Left understanding was there to fight both the BJP and Congress. In 1996, the Left had an understanding with parties like the Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal. It was only after the elections that the United Front was forged and it formed the government. The United Front government in 1996-98 was dependent on Congress support. The United Front with the Left participation formulated a Common Minimum Programme for the government. But it was not a united front that emerged on the basis of parties committed to a common programme, working together and winning elections. It was a post-election combination forged to keep the BJP out of power.

After the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, the United Front disintegrated. The TDP and the National Conference went with the BJP. The latter joined the NDA while the TDP extended support to the Vajpayee government. Later, the DMK and the AGP also went over to the NDA.

In 2001, the Left parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (S) formed a People’s Front and announced a programme. But this Front proved shortlived falling apart on the question of whom to support for the Presidential election.

It is given this chequered history of the efforts to put together a third force, that the CPI(M) once again discussed the question of a third alternative.

First of all, the third alternative can only be a secular combination with a secular platform which opposes the communal forces. This is the basic requirement when the communal forces have been able to come to government at the Centre and the BJP-RSS combine was able to control the levers of State power in the recent period. Any opportunism, vacillation or softness regarding these forces will be fatal for the third alternative.

Secondly, the CPI(M) stresses the need for a third alternative rather than a third front. This is to emphasise that the alternative has to be based on policies. In earlier efforts, the third front was seen as an immediate electoral necessity. While in successive elections, it may be necessary for cooperation and adjustment of seats between the parties which comprise the third force, giving shape to a front only for electoral requirements does not lead to the establishment of a third force on a stable and sustainable basis.

That is why in the 18th Congress of the Party held a year ago in April 2005, the political resolution set out what needs to be done to forge a third alternative.

The CPI(M) is not for the consolidation of two combinations headed by the Congress and the BJP. In essence this would mean the alternation of policies which are basically the same — pro-big business, pro-rural rich and pro-imperialist. As against such a two front scenario emerging, the non-Congress and non-BJP parties and forces should be gathered around a third alternative. For doing so, the Party has stated that firstly it is necessary to strengthen the Left at the all-India level. It is only a stronger Left force which can bind the third alternative into a stable entity. Secondly, the third alternative must be based on policies which are distinct from those pursued by the Congress or the BJP. A programme should be formulated which should contain the common understanding even if on all issues there is no agreement. According to the Left, this will require a strong anti-communal platform combined with pro-people economic policies, measures to protect economic sovereignty and an independent foreign policy. Such a common platform of polices can emerge when the parties and forces concerned conduct joint campaigns and struggles. It cannot be reduced only to an election alliance.

To go forward to this goal, there is need for a change in the outlook of political parties who do not see any problem in allying with the BJP or the Congress. As far as economic policies are concerned, some of the regional parties which are secular, avidly pursue policies of liberalisation and privatization when they run state governments. This was the experience in Andhra Pradesh when the TDP government vigorously pushed through World Bank-dictated policies. They have to recognise that these are harmful for the livelihood of the working people and contrary to the aspirations of the common people. It is possible to bring about such a climate only by building big movements and unleashing struggles on the issues affecting the people. The Left has to play its role in initiating united struggles and movements which encompass the widest sections.

It is this process towards a third alternative that has begun. On some issues, the Left and other secular parties have come together on a joint platform and campaign. The defence of an independent foreign policy is one such in the recent period. There are a range of issues — agrarian distress and farmers demands, FDI in retail trade, against privatization of profitable public sector enterprises, against unemployment and price rise, against the BJP’s efforts to revive the communal agenda — on all these joint campaigns and struggles are possible.

It is through these political campaigns and movements that a third alternative can be shaped. In the meantime, to meet an immediate electoral situation, specific understanding or adjustment of seats can be arrived at.

It is in this context we have to view the recent announcement made by Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav and Shri Chandrababu Naidu about the formation of a national alternative comprising the SP, TDP, AGP, AIADMK and the National Conference. Can this be considered to be the launch of a third alternative? These five parties have not set out any programme, or made any policy announcement. The leaders seem to expect the alliance to firm up with the results of the assembly elections. It can be asked how the assembly elections in some states can determine the “national alternative” to be set up? It should be noted that with the exception of the Samajwadi Party, all the other parties were previously associated in some manner with the BJP and the NDA. What do these parties have to say about the BJP and the communal danger now? That all these parties are willing to fight the Congress is clear, but are they equally clear that going with the BJP is something which destroys the essence of a third alternative.

Without the parties constituting the third alternative coming together to spell out their stand on major political and economic policy issues and showing a willingness to work together for such a platform, a third alternative cannot be forged. The regional parties must clarify where they stand on all-India economic policies, if they are to become part of a national alternative. If the idea is to come together to face elections from time to time, various parties can do so, but that cannot be construed as posing a real alternative in terms of national politics.

The CPI(M) believes the situation is ripe for joint actions by parties who believe in secularism, pro-people economic policies and defending the country from the onslaught of imperialist interests. It is through such joint campaigns and movements that a common platform will emerge for the projection of a third alternative. Till then it may be possible to work out common electoral tactics whenever required, but hasty announcements will prove to be premature.