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Rear view: An end and a beginning

The exit of Narasimha Rao triggered the coalition era

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: April 20, 2015 12:29:50 am
Narsimha Rao In March 1993, horrendous serial blasts took place in what was still called Bombay, and Narsimha Rao’s authority was further eroded.

As has already been mentioned briefly (‘How Narasimha Rao became PM’, IE, April 6), despite a lack of charisma and mass following, P.V. Narasimha Rao began his tenure as prime minister very well. Indeed, during the first year, his performance was impressive. He was a man of intellect with wide experience and a non-assertive political style, combined with a commendable willingness to compromise. He introduced a series of dramatic economic reforms to liberalise the Indian economy, which had until then remained regulated. He also coped with the grave consequences of the implosion of the Soviet Union and courageously held elections in the highly troubled state of Punjab, which the Congress won.

But Rao’s problems began 18 months later and steadily worsened with the passage of time. Corruption and the even more disastrous mishandling of the demolition of the Babri Masjid became his bane. The country blamed him personally when, in April 1992, the news broke of a massive stockmarket scam involving the enormous diversion of funds from banks and the treasury. As if this and other scandals that came to light fast were not enough, his foreign minister and a former chief minister of Gujarat, Madhavsinh Solanki, was forced to resign because he had carried and given the Swiss government an anonymous letter suggesting that the Bofors bribery investigation “did not enjoy much of a priority with the government of India”. Poor Solanki could never recall the name of the person who had given him that mysterious missive. In March 1993, horrendous serial blasts took place in what was still called Bombay, and Rao’s authority was further eroded.

Surprisingly, not many people remember that Arjun Singh and his cohorts had started an internal revolt against Rao and eventually formed a separate party called Congress (T), the alphabet in parenthesis standing for N.D. Tiwari, the several times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who had also served as a senior minister in several Central cabinets. It is inconceivable that they acted without informing Sonia Gandhi of what was afoot. Evidently, she did not dissuade them. But when they begged her to “grace” their party’s inaugural meeting, even for a few minutes, she firmly refused.

Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that the Congress lost a series of state assembly elections during Rao’s time. Towards the end of 1994, it lost Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, its traditional strongholds. Worse was to follow a year later. The Congress lost the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. An alliance of the Shiv Sena and BJP won Maharashtra, and the BJP alone ousted the Congress in Gujarat. In Tamil Nadu, the Congress was with the losing side of the two dominant Dravidian parties, the AIADMK led by J. Jayalalithaa. Though everyone knew that she would lose and the DMK, led by M. Karunanidhi, would win hands down, Rao insisted on an alliance with her, largely for fear that if he went with the DMK, he would be blamed for joining hands with those allegedly associated with Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. A large number of Congressmen left the party, formed the Tamil Mannila Congress
and became the DMK’s allies. In view of this, no one was surprised by the disastrous results of the parliamentary polls in 1996.

For the first time, the BJP, with 161 members, became the largest party in the Lok Sabha. The Congress tally had slumped from 244 in 1991 to 140 five years later. The third, relatively large formation was a motley crowd calling itself the United Front, of which the Tamil Mannila Congress was a part. The UF’s problem was that it had no recognisable leader. Its scouts gave former prime minister V.P. Singh a chase that put into shade even the bizarre scenes in Bollywood films. But he managed to escape them every time. Since no party staked a claim to form the new government, President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee to do so and prove his majority on the floor of the House. As was to be expected, this turned out to be “a 13-day wonder”. Vajpayee resigned to fight and win another day. Meanwhile, the UF had chosen the then Karnataka chief minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, as its leader. He now became prime minister of a government that depended upon the Congress party’s support “from outside” for every minute of its existence.

However, there was internecine warfare within the Congress itself. Blamed for the party’s electoral debacle, Rao was forced to resign as Congress president as well. His successor was Sitaram Kesri, a veteran of political infighting not particularly overburdened with scruples. He also had ambitions to be prime minister. He did not want to wait until the UF collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Moreover, he suspected that Deve Gowda was conspiring with Rao to frame him on charges of corruption. So he struck and withdrew Congress support to the Deve Gowda government in April 1997. However, the office of prime minister did not catapult to Kesri, and the Congress agreed to let the UF rule under a new leader. The powerful bosses of the political parties comprising the front chose I.K. Gujral, a thorough gentleman expected to reign while the bosses would rule. This arrangement was also short-lived. For, in November, the Congress also pulled the plug on Gujral. Fresh elections were scheduled for February-March 1998, which were to produce several surprises.

The first was that Sonia Gandhi, having stayed completely aloof from the 1996 elections, agreed to canvass for the Congress this time round. Accompanied by her two children, she began her campaign from Sriperumbudur, where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Everywhere she went, she got a big welcome. But this did not make much difference.

The Congress tally remained what it was two years earlier. The BJP’s strength rising to 182 was a surprise, however. Moreover, since the saffron party had collected no fewer than 24 allies, Vajpayee was in power again as the head of the National Democratic Alliance.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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