The Left's hope of floating a third front doesn't seem to be making much headway. One reason is that the ever changing permutations and combinations of the Indian political scene have ensured that one of the key components of the proposed group, the Samajwadi Party, is moving closer to the Congress.
Since the latter is one of the political adversaries of the third "alternative", as the general secretary Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Prakash Karat, likes to describe the alliance, the Samajwadi Party's tactics have put a spanner in the Left's expectations.
There are other difficulties, too, for the CPI-M. Apart from the continuing factionalism in the party's Kerala unit casting doubts about the front's cohesiveness, the recent elevation of S. Sudhakar Reddy as deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) means that the earlier bonhomie between the two communist parties will be under a strain because the new office-bearer is more critical of Big Brother than A.B. Bardhan, the CPI's general secretary.
If there are rifts within the Left fraternity, it is difficult to imagine how it can put together a durable anti-Congress and anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, especially in view of the changing equations between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. The reason why these two parties have decided to move closer together is their common fear of the feisty Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati.
There was a brief period when the Congress tried to lure the Dalit leader to its side, judging from the indulgent attitude towards the charges of corruption against her shown by Uttar Pradesh Governor T.V. Rajeshwar. The income-tax authorities, too, were ready to accept her claim that her monetary and other assets were the result of the munificence of her besotted followers - their "love, affection and personal esteem", as an appellate tribunal said.
It can perhaps be mentioned at this point that the Congress' penchant for using the gubernatorial office and official agencies to act in accordance with the party's partisan agenda has been a longstanding feature of the Indian scene.
If the Congress has since changed its mind about befriending Mayawati, the explanation lies in its apparent nervousness about the BSP undercutting the Congress' base of support by strengthening its grip over the Dalits, who are seemingly the BSP's captive vote bank, as well as the Brahmins and the Muslims.
It was the support of this unlikely Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim combination that used to be the Congress' forte in the past. In the aftermath of the Babri mosque demolition in 1992, however, it lost the Muslims to the various Janata outfits, the Dalits to the BSP and the Brahmins to the BJP.
While sections of the Muslims are drifting back to the Congress, presumably because of Sonia Gandhi's presence at the top, Mayawati has been able to retain her hold over the Dalits while the Brahmins and the other upper castes, such as the Bhumihars, are still mostly with the BJP and its allies like the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) in the Hindi heartland.
It is to counter the threat of Mayawati playing the Dalit-Brahmin-Muslim card in states outside Uttar Pradesh, thereby undermining the Congress' prospects in the forthcoming assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan, that the Congress has reached out to the BSP's sworn enemy, the Samajwadi Party.
Considering that despite their strained relations, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party were partners in the Uttar Pradesh government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav before its defeat last year might partly explain their present growing closeness.
The current proximity also suggests that Sonia Gandhi has forgiven Mulayam Singh Yadav for frustrating her chances of forming a Congress-led government in 1999 when she had been misled by his promise of support to claim that the required number of 272 MPs were with the Congress. Latest revelations have shown that a meeting between Mulayam Singh Yadav and BJP leader L.K. Advani, two supposed adversaries, preceded Sonia Gandhi's faux pas.
But all that is in the past now because of Mayawati's looming threat and the Congress' need to make its presence felt in the Hindi belt, from where it has virtually been wiped out by the regional parties.
Given this context, it is possible that the Left's claims about a third alternative - the time is ripe for it, according to Karat - are a case of whistling in the dark, for there is no realistic possibility of it emerging as a political force of any consequence in the foreseeable future.
In any event, most of its members like Mulayam Singh Yadav, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu and former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala were defeated in the last elections in their states and are, therefore, at something of a loose end.
Besides, as the CPI-M's political-organisational report shows, the party is slipping even in its supposed strongholds like West Bengal and Kerala. According to the report, the party's membership attrition rate is as high as 10.62 percent in Kerala. In West Bengal, the dropout rate is 3.5 percent. What must also be worrying for the Marxists is that only 17 percent of its members are below 30 years of age. It is evident that the younger generation is looking for its own "alternative".
The Left's purpose, therefore, in persistently talking about an anti-Congress and anti-BJP front is to frighten the Congress about deserting the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by it. But the current political health of the comrades does not seem to be robust enough for them to chart out a new course.
It is more than likely, therefore, that they will remain with the UPA while continuing to whine about its "neo-liberal" economic policies and the nuclear deal.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)