Indian politics has witnessed changing phases over the years, marked by the dominance of different parties and leaders. This complexity is further accentuated by the intricacies of coalition politics, shaping relationships among parties and government branches in distinctive ways.
The political era at the dawn of Indian independence was characterised by the hegemony of the Indian National Congress over the Indian dispensation. The opposition parties at this time lacked the machinery, coherence of ideology, popular leadership, and unity to challenge the Congress.
However, as with each democracy, political competition grew as time passed. The weakening of the Congress was both due to changes within the party itself, and due to the strengthening of opposition parties and leaders.
The first serious challenge to the Congress at the national level was mainly a product of its own mistakes. This, of course, was the National Emergency established by the Indira Gandhi government between 1975-1977. It involved brutal repression of the people and spontaneous and arbitrary arrests of political leaders, which contributed to anti-Congress sentiments, especially in North India.
During the Emergency, lower-level political leaders and organisers continued to marshal the public against the undemocratic rule of Indira Gandhi. Those being mobilised were mainly from the middle castes-under the two shades of solidarity, resulting in a serious political campaign against the Congress.
As a result, in the 1977 general elections, all parties in opposition to the Congress joined hands and formed the Janata Party-whose main mandate and ideology was restoring democracy that had been tarnished under the Emergency. It took advantage of its caste mobilisation and swept electoral seats across North India. It won the elections-delivering the Congress its first defeat since 1947.
However, the coalition government soon proved weak, with significant ideological and political divisions emerging between the coalition partners and the INC returned to power just three years later.
However, something that did happen was the birth of several parties, who would play a key role in disseating the Congress from power later in Indian politics. Among these are of course the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s current ruling party, and Janata Dal, a prominent party in Indian politics.
The 1980s saw innumerable impactful events in Indian politics. PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, and she was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, until 1989. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister saw happenings that would eventually unravel the grip of the Congress over Indian politics, such as the Shah Bano case, for example. However, the most important of them was the BOFORS gun scandal. This major corruption scandal, laced with the murder of a foreign leader, was used as a political propellant by Gandhi’s own defence minister, V.P Singh. He defected from the Congress and sought to compete against who had up until recently been his own Prime Minister.
One of the most significant electoral promises of VP Singh had been that he would implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, a commission that had been set up a decade prior by the Janata government in order to look into improving the socioeconomic conditions of the backward classes.
A conglomerate of non-Congress parties again formed a national alliance in order to prevent the splitting of non-Congress votes. This time, it was called the National Front. Together, it managed to defeat the incumbent Congress party and won 143 seats in the Lok Sabha and was supported by Bharatiya Janata Party from outside. VP Singh was chosen as the Prime Minister.
During his short-lived tenure, he established reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs and educational institutes, thus further deepening caste lines within Indian politics.
However, in an ensuing power struggle, he was ousted in 1990 by Chandra Shekhar, who defected from the Janata Dal and won a vote of confidence, notably with the support of Rajiv Gandhi.
Shekhar’s tenure as Prime Minister was a short one too, as he too lost support, resulting in fresh elections being announced for 1991. It is also important to note that at this time India was facing economic issues, and the people suffered with rising prices, unemployment, and shortages.
In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
Rao and After
The Congress party won the elections in 1991, as a minority government, with outside support from other parties. It decided to appoint PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister.
In order to resolve its grave economic crisis, India resorted to the World Bank and the IMF for a loan-however these organisations stipulated that a loan was possible only if India opened up its economy to imports and foreign producers. Thus, under PM Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, India was forced to devise a completely New Economic Policy (NEP).
During Rao’s Prime Ministership, one of the biggest political earthquakes took place-the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. This issue would be mobilised by the BJP in strengthening its electoral prospects.
As a result, in the 1996 general elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, however it was unable to form a full majority. As a result, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government only lasted 13 days and elections were announced again.
The second election cycle of 1996 would be much like the one in 1989, with several parties forming an alliance in hopes to prevent the largest party from winning the elections. The crucial difference was that this time, the alliance, United Front, was rooted for by the Congress in opposition to the BJP, as now the BJP was the biggest party.
The alliance managed to win the elections in 1996 and chose H.D Deve Gowda as Prime Minister. His tenure ended abruptly, and in 1997, IK Gujral was made Prime Minister, although under the same government.
In his tenure, a massive political scandal broke out-with the DMK, whose members were in the cabinet, accused of having supported Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. Despite the Congress’ repeated requests, Gujral refused to fire the DMK members from his cabinet, and as a result, the Congress withdrew its support and the government fell in 1998.
In 1998, the BJP formed its own national alliance-the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It would go on to win the elections in 1998, and again in 1999 under the aegis of the NDA. In both terms, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be the Prime Minister.
The Vajpayee government took many big decisions keeping in mind the interest of the nation. However, soon Atal Bihari Vajpayee started facing difficulties with his coalition partners. There are several incidents reported in public where coalition members brazenly demanded favours in return for their support to the government. However, the statesman in him, managed to run his government. “India Has To Run On Consensus”, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had said.
The Congress resented the success of BJP’s alliance and formed its own, called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004. It emerged as the largest party in the 2004 elections by the barest of margins, and formed the government with the help of UPA. Manmohan Singh became the Prime Minister and retained his post until 2014.
In 2014, BJP won the national elections with a clear majority. This was the first time a single party received a clear majority since 1984! The victory of the BJP marked the end of the coalition era in Indian politics. Narendra Modi was appointed Prime Minister.
The coalition era in Indian politics was a turbulent one-it witnessed several developments that would cascade and influence Indian politics decades down the line-such as the premise of OBC reservations, the New Economic Policy, the emergence of regional parties as important factors in national politics, the 1992 Ayodhya incident etc.
It can be understood that the coalition era was a very unstable one for India-it was marked by nine different governments in a span of just 25 years!
Now, with a new era of clear majorities underway, Indians can finally expect stable, lasting governments who can advance the country steadily.
Note: I have taken the photographs/illustrations from internet. They belong to the author/photographer/designer of the original article/s.