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Posted at: Apr 23, 2019, 6:46 AM; last updated: Apr 23, 2019, 6:46 AM (IST)

Rollercoaster journey of coalitions

Mahesh Rangarajan

Mahesh Rangarajan
A central force is needed to effectively run even a coalition. The BJP (1999-2004) and the Congress (2004-14) were able to provide it. Vajpayee never had a single-party majority, while Modi has not governed without one. The Congress, as an alliance leader, also did not have the numbers to run the show as it liked.
Rollercoaster journey of coalitions
Clout: Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party had propped up the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government after the 1999 Lok Sabha elections.

Mahesh Rangarajan
Professor of History & Environmental Studies, Ashoka University

MAY 2014 marked a political milestone. India voted a single party (BJP) to majority after three decades. Back in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had led the Congress to a two-thirds majority. In those days, India was a newcomer to coalitions, minority governments and fractured mandates. 

Only once, in 1969, had there been a government with a mandate in the General Election reduced to a minority but able to carry on due to the support from smaller parties. Indira Gandhi, with 221 MPs in the Lok Sabha, had the backing of the Communist Party of India and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. 

The other government that was reduced to 205 MPs was that of Morarji Desai, India’s first non-Congress PM. Though it had 300-plus representation in the Lok Sabha, the government was never a cohesive entity. 

The Charan Singh government made history of sorts as he remained PM for less than three weeks and resigned without ever having faced the House. His advice to dissolve the Lok Sabha was accepted by the President and in 1980, the Congress (I) began what turned out to be a nearly decade-long spell of one-party rule.

The BJP, under Narendra Modi, has the distinction of being the first party to secure a majority since 1984. There the similarities end. Rajiv was a newcomer to politics, whereas PM Modi is a seasoned campaigner. 

Perhaps the more apt comparison is with the 1980 government of Indira Gandhi. Her party secured 43 per cent of the votes, while the BJP got 31 per cent. Along with its allies, it secured 39 per cent. It is significant for a party which has its own majority to share power. The precedent often cited is that of Jyoti Basu, Chief Minister of West Bengal from 1977 for 23 years, but with three smaller Left parties in his government all through. 

In 1947, the Congress had a majority but preferred to induct men of proven stature and talent into the government under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. There were important figures not identified with any political party. Dr John Mathai was the first Railway Minister who went on to hold the Finance portfolio. Cooverji Hormusji Bhabha, formerly from a leading insurance company, was the Minister for Works, Mines and Power.

Troubles sprang up for the PM and the Deputy PM from their own party. Congress president JB Kripalani saw the government as a vehicle of party policy. Nehru asserted that the PM was the captain of the ship. He won the day.

It was only in 1952 after the General Election was complete and a 352-seat majority safely under his belt that Nehru put his full stamp of authority on the government. Until 2004, the Congress governed without coalitions. 

In 1977, PM Indira Gandhi, fighting for political survival, labelled the Opposition as a ‘khichdi combination’. Her opponents, she said, had only one aim, to dislodge the Congress and had no glue to unify them other than ambition. 

There was a ring of truth to this. The Janata Party in 1977 and the much smaller Janata Dal of 1989 did not last long in office. But it would be going too far to dismiss coalitions as being incapable of providing direction or shying away from key decisions. 

PM Morarji Desai and Union Home Minister Charan Singh repealed the Emergency declared in 1975 (on internal grounds) as well as the Emergency declared in 1971 (due to external aggression). The 1977 verdict gave democracy fresh lifeblood.

The VP Singh government is remembered for its decision to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1990. But it is critical to recall the beginning of armed insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and the declaration by then Pakistan PM Benazir Bhutto of a “thousand-year war”. There was unanimity in Parliament when VP Singh said that those who spoke like this would not last even a thousand hours. 

This was clear in 1996 and 1998-99 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to head minority governments that lasted 13 days and 13 months, respectively. He went ahead with polls as per schedule in Jammu and Kashmir in the summer of 1996. And it was as the PM of a government propped up by the Telugu Desam Party that he went ahead with the Pokhran tests in May 1998 and prosecuted a limited war in Kargil 1999.

HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral lasted less than a year each in office. But it was the former who paved the way for high-level talks over India’s longest running insurgency, led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). It was Gujral who defied then US President Bill Clinton and refused to sign on the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT).

In his book The Myth of the Strong Leader, Prof Archie Brown shows how it was Clement Attlee more than Winston Churchill who was to effect far-reaching changes in British political life. As Deputy PM in the War Cabinet, Attlee laid the foundation of the post-war welfare state even before he won the polls in 1945 to become Labour’s first Prime Minister. So, coalitions can deliver.

The record does, however, show up one key point. A central force is needed to effectively run even a coalition. The BJP (1999-2004) and the Congress (2004-14) were able to provide it. 

The question today, as in Indira Gandhi’s era, is what kind of a government the country prefers.  It’s the policies and ideas as much as the make-up of the government that matters. Vajpayee never had a single-party majority, while Modi has not governed without one. The Congress, as an alliance leader, too, did not have the numbers to run the show as it liked. So, the kind of leader India wants matters as much as the kind of government we collectively prefer.


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