Back to Third Front

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Feb 21 2012, 05:55am hrs
Last week, a group of non-Congress, non-BJP chief ministers appeared to get together to revive the old bogey of a Third Front. The Front, whose only experience of power was between those erratic days in 1996-98, has remained an idea locked in potentiality, trotted out whenever convenient by constituent parties. This time around, the issue around which these chief ministers converged was the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) in each state to co-ordinate, what else, counter terrorism activities.

The centrally controlled NCTC would, these chief ministers alleged, interfere with the states right to maintain law and order. From a question of federalism to the idea of a Third Front government to quashing Delhis mainstream arrogance, was one small step.

The man who proposed the revival of the Third Front was Naveen Patnaik, third time chief minister of Orissa, and a political mystery to much of the country. When he first got elected from Aska, his father, late Biju Patnaiks Lok Sabha seat, the talk was all about Patnaiks socialite predilections rather than his fathers socialist background. He soon acquired a reputation for decisive action against corruption (albeit mostly against his predecessor, Congress JB Patnaiks cronies), a forward thinker on development and a beacon for Indias biggest-listed FDI project, the POSCO steel plant.

His political ruthlessness, first in tying up and then breaking up with the BJP, decimating them in the state, and turning the Congress bid to woo the tribal vote in the state into a National Geographic photo-op of the Niyamgiri tribals, has been well demonstrated.

Patnaik, famous for not knowing Oriya, and never having delivered a speech in that language in all his years at the helm of affairs, is not exactly a favourite with Delhi, either with the NDA government or with the Congress-led UPA.

A Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MP recalls that under the NDA regime, there was some dissension within the party, chafing against Patnaiks absolute rule and his dependence on bureaucrats rather than his own partymen. When this ginger group within the party wanted to hold a separate meeting with then home minister LK Advani, the latter refused, citing coalition dharma. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, however, understood power equations a little better and called this group for a photo-op at 7 Race Course Road. A photograph of Vajpayee and a ginger group of his MPs, with a caption which read the PM promised to look into the demands of the people of Orissa alarmed Patnaik enough to herd his flock a little better, and give them some breathing room in Delhi.

Needless to say, his relationship with the BJP has tanked spectacularly since.

His rivals in the state, the Congress, love to apply pinpricks to his ego as well. His lack of proficiency in his mother tongue, Oriya and his Doon School upbringing comes in for many well-sharpened taunts. A central minister in Delhi in fact makes it a point to play Oriya folk music as a background to all his meetings with Patnaik, just to drive the point home.

What is it about Patnaik that raises hackles and inspires such meanness

One reason could be jealousy, plain and simple. Politicians of all hues have to live within defined red lines, mask sophistication under a home boy facade, learn new languages, talk a different talk. Patnaik manages to get elected despite his known shortcomings. Pappu (Patniaks pet names) retains his sophisticated pursuits and his bachelor status, and the people of the state find no disconnect between his persona and his under-developed state.

Mostly, though, despite his Doon School upbringing and apparently effete interests in penning coffee table books, he has played the political game much better than most. Unlike many political inheritors, he has held fast to his father Biju Patniaks legacy, and fashioned an empire for himself.

His run-ins with the Centre on POSCO and Niyamgiri have given him a taste for scrappy federal politics. After three stints as CM, he could be looking at a national role; dusting off the cobwebs from the Third Front could well be a start.

nistula.hebbar@expressindia.com