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Allies and liability

Coalition politics has not meant more democratic politics.

To begin the story from the beginning, it is not clear when exactly the coalition era began. To begin the story from the beginning, it is not clear when exactly the coalition era began.

Whatever one might say about the timing, motives or ramifications of Justice Markandey Katju’s sensational disclosure, nobody has yet been able to disprove the facts about the undue extensions given to a “tainted” additional judge of the Madras High Court because of the DMK’s threat to pull out of the UPA government and thus bring it down. My submission is that this was not the only gross impropriety committed in the name of coalition compulsions. At the time when the Congress’s main ally, the Left, was objecting to the government’s proposal to partially privatise several public sector undertakings, for instance, some DMK ministers reportedly barged into the prime minister’s office to warn him that selling any shares of the Neyveli lignite project would bring his government down.

Since public memory is proverbially short, let me remind the reader that when the single-party rule of the Congress ended and the coalition era began, a large proportion of the political class, including pundits and commentators, virtually jumped with joy. At long last, they said, the country will have “real democracy” and those excluded from politics for so long would be empowered. However sincere the belief, reality did not redeem it.

To begin the story from the beginning, it is not clear when exactly the coalition era began. Arguably, it was after the humiliating defeat of Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency election in 1977. For even though the Janata Party pretended to be a single political entity, it was, in fact, a coalition of four parties, united only in their abhorrence of the Congress and divided over almost everything else. In any case, the Janata collapsed ignominiously in 30 months. Indira spectacularly returned to power. She, and after her assassination, her elder son Rajiv, who was practically dragooned into politics, ruled the country for a decade.

His former cabinet colleague and nemesis, V.P. Singh, replaced Rajiv. Singh headed what he called the National Front, but turned out to be a notional front. In any case, the front’s strength was so limited that it needed the support of two opposite poles of the political spectrum, the BJP and the Communists, to survive. Within 11 months, however, Singh’s government fell because of his unilateral decision to enforce the Mandal report recommending 27 per cent reservations for OBCs. With Rajiv’s patronage, the former Young Turk, Chandra Shekhar, became prime minister but lasted only 120 days.

After Rajiv’s assassination in the midst of the 1991 general election, P.V. Narasimha Rao ran a minority Congress government for the full five years, though the means he used made him the first former PM to be dragged to a court of law on criminal charges. No wonder, the Congress was defeated in the 1996 polls (though it retained 140 seats in the Lok Sabha). For the first time, the BJP became the largest party in the House, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first government became a 13-day wonder. A new government of the so-called United Front, headed by H.D. Deve Gowda, was then sworn in. It, too, could not have survived even for a day without the Congress’s support “from outside”. The then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, for reasons of his own, pulled the plug on Gowda but let the UF rule under the leadership of I.K. Gujral. Another group of Congressmen pulled the rug from under Gujral’s feet because he would not expel the DMK from his government, which the Congress suspected was complicit in Rajiv’s assassination. (Ironically, it later became a close ally of the Congress.)

In the general election in 1998, the BJP came to power by heading the NDA, with Vajpayee again as prime minister. But this government fell, for want of a single vote in the Lok Sabha, only a few days after celebrating its first anniversary. Why? Because J. Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK withdrew her support since the BJP-led government could not or would not withdraw the court cases filed against her by the state government led by her bitterest foe, M. Karunanidhi. The country had to endure another election before which the BJP, as a caretaker government, fought the Kargil war. This time round, it won with a comfortable majority.

It is to Sonia Gandhi’s credit that in the 2004 polls, she led the Congress back to power even though the BJP was so confident of its future that it had advanced the election by some months. By then, the Congress had been in the wilderness for eight years, and the dynasty for 13.
In all fairness, the coalition era in India began in 1999 and ended, for the foreseeable future at least, in May this year, when the BJP won a clear majority on its own and a dominant one with its allies.

What Jayalalithaa did to the first NDA coalition has already been mentioned. Under pressure from other allies, Vajpayee had to put on the back burner some of the prime elements in his party’s programme. Some allies walked out of his government. However, overall, he seems to have managed his coalition better than the diarchy of Sonia and Manmohan Singh did or could during the decade they ran the ruling coalition, the UPA. Vajpayee usually spoke of “coalition dharma”, Manmohan of the “compulsions of coalition politics”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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