Regardless of whether a national party is on the rise or decline, it presumes it must steer a coalition government at the Centre as it has a pan-India outlook. When denied the steering wheel, the national party wrecks the coalition in the hope of returning to power or acquiring a bigger footprint. This has been the history of coalitions in India ever since the Janata Party experiment ended in a chaotic failure in 1979.

In the 1989 general elections, the Congress secured 197 seats and the Janata Dal 143. The Janata Dal chose VP Singh as prime minister – his government got external support from the BJP and the Left, the two ideological rivals. In the manner of the Janata Party a decade ago, the Janata Dal was beset with ego clashes among its leaders.

Yet the decisive blow to the Janata Dal government was first delivered by the BJP. The face-off occurred because of Singh’s decision to grant 27% reservation to the Other Backward Classes in Central government jobs. The upper castes revolted. The backward castes consolidated against them.

Advani’s rath yatra

Choosing to electorally exploit the upper caste outrage, as well as using Hindutva to paper over the caste divide, BJP leader LK Advani began his rath yatra from Somnath, in Gujarat, on September 25, 1990. This yatra made it a fashion among the middle class to flaunt their Hindu identity, to openly declare their support for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. After taking the yatra through several states, Advani was scheduled to reach Ayodhya on October 30 to participate in the kar seva for the temple. As the yatra triggered communal tension in the areas it traversed, leaving behind a trail of death and devastation, there arose a demand to stop it. The BJP responded that if this happened, it would withdraw its support to Singh’s government at the Centre.

That is what it did when Chief Minister Lalu Yadav arrested Advani on October 23, when the yatra passed through Bihar. VP Singh subsequently lost a no-confidence motion in Parliament on November 7, but not before he asked both the Congress and BJP, “What kind of India do you intend to create?” It is more or less the question that Congress president Rahul Gandhi persistently raises today.

Chandra Shekhar then split the Janata Dal to form the Janata Dal (Samajwadi), which consisted of just 57 MPs. In stepped the Congress, the other national party, to offer support to Chandra Shekhar, who took over as prime minister on November 10. Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi was merely buying time for the social unrest, arising from Mandir-Mandal politics, to subside before facing elections.

Congress’ games

Displaying the arrogance typical of national parties, the Congress subsequently mounted pressure on Chandra Shekhar to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu on the plea that it was not cooperating in anti-terror operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam militants. In reality, the Congress merely wanted to please the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, its ally. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government was dismissed in January 1991 even though Governor SS Barnala chose to resign rather than submit a report that could have justified Chandra Shekhar’s action.

The Congress then thought of a hilarious pretext to force a mid-term poll. Apprehending two Haryana police constables loitering around Gandhi’s residence, the Congress claimed that Chandra Shekhar and his deputy Devi Lal had ordered surveillance on their leaders. Chandra Shekhar could take it no more – he resigned on March 6, 1991.

In the Lok Sabha elections held in June that year, the Congress emerged as the single largest party. Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated the previous month so PV Narasimha Rao became the prime minister of a minority Congress government. Yet Rao completed his five-year term through methods fair and foul. For instance, four Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs were bribed for their votes in a no-confidence motion against Rao.

The 1996 elections produced a badly hung Lok Sabha. The BJP and its allies had little less than 200 MPs and the Congress and its partners around 150. The halfway mark in Parliament is 272. After the elections, 13 regional and Left parties and the Janata Dal banded together to establish the United Front. This grouping accounted for as many as 190 MPs. They emphatically declared that they would not support a Congress government.

Rao had no choice but to support the United Front or risk a BJP government. Yet he dilly-dallied. About its consequence, journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Shankar Raghuraman write in Divided We Stand: India in a time of Coalition write, “…Rao took enough time to decide upon it [supporting the United Front] for the BJP to be invited to form the government.”

Was the inexplicable delay on Rao’s part because the Congress hoped to tear apart the United Front? Or did he wish to provide the BJP – sitting on the cusp of becoming a national party ­­– with its first chance at governance? BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn-in as prime minister on May 16 but resigned on May 27 after he failed to muster enough numbers in the 13 days that he was given to prove his majority.

Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda with Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao in New Delhi on April 10, 1997. Gowda lost a trust vote the next day. (Photo credit: Reuters).

HD Deve Gowda was sworn in as prime minister on June 1. He led the United Front with external support from the Congress. But Gowda’s problems began as soon as Sitaram Kesri replaced Rao as Congress president in September 1996.

Kesri took to criticising Gowda for not respecting the Congress. It was a reminder to Gowda to massage Kesri’s ego. It was pointed out that Gowda had visited K Karunakaran, the Congress leader from Kerala, eight times, but had met Kesri only twice. That Gowda visited Rao in hospital after he had undergone a minor eye surgery, but did not call upon Kesri when he was bed-ridden with a viral fever.

Underlying the Gowda-Kesri ego clash were certain political factors. Kesri wanted the United Front to support the bid of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress to form a coalition government. Such a move would have miffed the Samajwadi Party, whose leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was a key player in Gowda’s government. Next, Kesri wanted Uttar Pradesh Governor Romesh Bhandari removed, but as a formation of regional parties, the United Front could not violate the federal spirit. Bhandari was not asked to go.

There was also the issue of Kesri’s political survival. For instance, the Central Bureau of Investigation was going full steam in its probe of Kesri’s assets that were deemed to be disproportionate to his known sources of income. Significantly, Gowda had permitted an investigation into the murder of Kesri’s personal physician, Dr Surendra Tanwar.

On March 28, 1997, Congress leader K Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy met Gowda for an hour, during which he is said to have mimicked Kesri. Gowda compounded the insult by visiting Rao the following day. A livid Kesri withdrew support from Gowda on March 30, and staked claim to form the government the next day.

Kesri had hoped the United Front would come apart as its MPs would be petrified of facing yet another election so soon. Gowda lost the confidence vote on April 11, but the United Front refused to share power with the Congress. The choice before the Congress was to let the United Front choose a new prime minister or face elections. The Congress accepted the United Front’s IK Gujral as prime minister.

Prime minister designate Inder Kumar Gujral is congratulated by Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav soon after Gujral was named leader of the 15-party United Front coalition in New Delhi on April 19, 1997. (Photo credit: Reuters).

The Congress waited for a few months before it latched on to the interim report of the MC Jain Commission that was probing the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Leaked to the media, the report indicted Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government for failing to protect Gandhi. It was a tendentious report, but the Congress said it wanted the party expelled from the United Front. The United Front refused.

The Congress met President KR Narayanan on November 28, 1997, and withdrew support to the United Front government. Gujral resigned that same day and recommended the dissolution of the Lok Sabha, which the president accepted.

Vajpayee gets another shot

After the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, Vajpayee headed another BJP-led government, which collapsed in April 1999, because the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam withdrew support from it. This is the only instance when a national party did not wreck a coalition government.

Essentially, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam wanted to slow down investigations into the 42 cases of corruption registered against its leader, J Jayalalitha. The BJP did indeed transfer prosecutors and Income Tax officials investigating her from Tamil Nadu. But Vajpayee also refused to concede to Jayalalithaa’s demand of dismissing the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu. She pulled the rug from under Vajpayee’s feet on April 14, 1999. Vajpayee surprised everyone by seeking a confidence vote the following day. In their book, Thakurta and Raghuraman quote BJP insiders to say that Vajpayee’s strategy was to ensure the Opposition did not reach a consensus on the contours of an alternative government.

Vajpayee lost the confidence motion by just a vote. But it did throw the Opposition into disarray. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi claimed she had the support of 272 MPs. But the Congress insisted it would form a minority government, not head a coalition. This led to Samajwadi Party MPs, among others, deserting the Congress. The country had to go to elections again.

From the current trends it does appear that regional outfits will bag a sizeable percentage of Lok Sabha seats in 2019. Their future is best assured by taking a lesson from history – their biggest enemies are the national parties, which fan the ambitions of regional satraps to only bring them crashing to the ground.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Read the first part:

Lesson from 1979 Janata Party fiasco: Coalitions are sunk by national parties not regional ones