The Congress dominated India’s politics both at the Centre and at the states for the first two decades after Independence. The year 1967 was significant in the evolution of our democracy as it was the last time that central and state elections were held simultaneously. Thereafter, the calendars in the states stopped matching the Centre’s, as regimes fell before their terms were over. It was a process that led us to the present era, where we have very different schedules for state and central elections.

In the first three elections held in India – 1952, 1957 and 1962 – the Congress won three-fourth of the seats in Parliament and in most states. The most significant defeat came in Kerala in 1957, when the Communist Party of India (CPI) formed the government, the first instance in the world of communism coming through the ballot box, another example of our extraordinarily rich and varied experience with electoral democracy.

What must also be stated is that, in that era, the Congress was boosted by the first-past-the-post system as the BJP is today.

In the nation’s first general election in 1952, the Congress got 45 per cent of the votes but 74 per cent of the seats. All the non-Congress votes were divided, so political groups such as the socialists of that era failed to record their 10 per cent vote share in seats. (A more recent example of the first-past-the-post system not reflecting voter sentiment with precision can be observed in the 2014 Lok Sabha result, when the BJP converted a 31 per cent vote share to a simple majority; conversely, the BSP got 20 per cent of the votes in UP in 2014 but did not win a single Lok Sabha seat.)

The other significant point about the nature of the Congress in early Independent India is that it actually represented a coalition of interests: It accommodated those who had a rightward tilt both in matters of identity and economy, and also socialists and liberals like Nehru. That gave the party that led the national movement a remarkably elastic nature and the ability to absorb factional fights. It also had, significantly, the ability to represent both the rich and the poor. The nature of the national leadership was that it often came from the English-speaking elite, such as Nehru himself. But the mass movement for Independence also transformed it into a mass party that could represent varied social groups and communities. The Congress was, therefore, in the first two decades of Independent India, omnipotent and omnipresent.

But India’s sheer diversity began to throw up challenges for the Congress in the post-Nehru era. First, Nehru died in 1964, and Shastri by consensus became prime minister (the great Congressman from what is now Tamil Nadu, K Kamaraj, then president of the party, oversaw the process). But Shastri died rather suddenly on a foreign visit in January 1966. The issue of succession now came up in the Congress between Indira Gandhi and Morarji, who had been chief minister of Bombay state, present-day Maharashtra and Gujarat. Indira Gandhi won that round and became prime minister, but at a time of great economic challenges.

Birth of Anti-Congressism

By 1967, the Congress’s grip on absolute power, from the Centre to the states, began to loosen. In the national election held that year, the party, under Indira Gandhi, won a fourth consecutive term in power, but by smaller margins than in the three elections under her father. Price rise, drought, a dip in forex reserves, and protests and strikes by communists and socialists formed the backdrop of the fourth national elections, when states voted simultaneously.

A significant figure of that age was socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, whose contribution to the political ideas that have shaped our country’s history has perhaps not got its due recognition. He was a freedom fighter and one-time member of the Congress who became deeply critical of Nehru. He developed several radical ideas about caste, class and what can be called socialist theory applicable to a once-colonised nation like India. He gave multiple political ideas in his writings. He began to see the Congress as inimical to the interests of the people of India.

He died young at the age of 57 in 1967, but it was he who had, in principle, advocated the coming together of parties of different ideologies to defeat a common foe. He coined the phrase ‘anti-Congressism’. This is relevant today, as the idea of disparate forces coming together to take down a common foe is one of the primary impulses that drive coalition politics. The difference is that from anti-Congressism, we have moved to anti-BJP-ism as being the impulse behind the process.

But back to 1967, which would turn out to be a watershed in the history of challenges presented to the Congress. As we have noted, the Congress under Indira Gandhi managed power at the Centre. But the party lost seven states in one fell swoop. New players emerged on the political landscape, most significantly the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Madras state, now Tamil Nadu, after leading an anti-Hindi agitation. The other states where the Congress lost power were UP, Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa (now Odisha) and West Bengal.

To be able to replace the Congress in some of these 23 states, coalitions began to be forged between ideologically incongruent forces.

Simultaneously, the process of splits and defections began. In UP, for instance, Jat leader Charan Singh left the Congress with a chunk of its Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to become chief minister, supported by non-Congress parties. The Swatantra Party also made an appearance at this time. Founded by C Rajagopalachari in 1959, the party was opposed to land ceilings, cooperative farming and the economic policies being pursued by Nehru’s Congress.

Winning seats in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Orissa, it got 44 MPs with almost 9.6 per cent of the votes polled – it had emerged as the single-largest Opposition party in the Lok Sabha. Yet, it was not declared the official Opposition in the Lok Sabha, as it was short by some seats to get the required 10 per cent. (Similarly, after the 2014 verdict, the Congress did not have the numbers to get the constitutional perks of an official Opposition party.)

In 1967, the Swatantra Party did play a part in forming ideologically disparate coalitions in the states. The party attracted landlords, feudals and former princes but did not survive the long haul in terms of ideas. Today, I would describe it as an interest group of liberals who wished to pursue right-wing economic policies.

But the more significant role in forming coalitions driven by anti-Congressism was played by the socialists, who were also putting Lohia’s ideas to the test. It is in this year that the coalition regime in Bihar included two socialist parties, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, or the Jana Sangh (precursor to the BJP), and the CPI. Similarly, a regime in Punjab combined Akali groups, communists, socialists and, again, the Jana Sangh.

These state regimes did not last long, but a process had been started. (Although the BJP was founded in 1980, it would be a mistake to see its history as beginning then. The Jana Sangh, the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS, was active in coalitions from the time the parties got together against the Congress.)

The coalition of anti-Congress forces consisting of many shades of socialists and the Jana Sangh, along with the Swatantra Party bunch, soon frittered away their opportunities.

But there was a Congress split in December 1969, when Indira Gandhi fell out with the old guard of the Congress, referred to as the Syndicate and called the Congress (O). She called for early elections in 1971, when again the old Lohia strategy of ‘all against the Congress’ was put to the test. This was called the Grand Alliance and included parties across the spectrum, except the left parties. The various factions of the socialist parties, the Jana Sangh, the Swatantra Party and a few others, joined forces.

This is when Indira Gandhi showed her mettle as a ruthless and shrewd politician. The process of what is now known as populism worked for her, as she shifted politics more leftwards and came up with the “Garibi hatao” (remove poverty) slogan (it was her response to the “Indira hatao” (remove Indira) slogan coined by the Opposition). The coalition was temporarily crushed – as was the Congress (O), which won just 16 seats compared to the 375 won by Indira Gandhi’s Congress (called Congress-R, which stood for Requisitionists, quite a complex word for a political party). Indira Gandhi, with her personality, legacy and pro-poor sloganeering, had re-established the dominance of the Congress. She had bettered her father’s record of winning seats. The Grand Alliance won under 40 seats.

But one more pointer to the future had emerged in 1971: The communists had supported Congress (R). In doing so, they began the tradition of supporting the Congress at the Centre while fighting them in state bastions like Kerala and West Bengal.

Excerpted with permission from Politics of Jugaad: The Coalition Handbook, Saba Naqvi, Rupa Publications.