Settling into his helicopter at dusk at Bulandshahr early in February, Jayant Chaudhary is careful about what he has to say about “inheriting” the legacy of his grandfather Charan Singh, former prime minister . “Politics is very dynamic, UP is going to change. Legacy issues are always tricky,” he says. “I can’t be judged by the highest standards he [Charan Singh] set. I have my own ways of working and thinking. But I have a responsibility…”
Jayant is not the only one carrying a legacy. Two more central figures in this election, Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, have a very personal link to events that took place exactly 50 years ago and pushed Indian politics into the post-Nehru era: 1967 was the year when Indian politics took its first significant break from one-party rule.
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Around the time Charan Singh was making his way out of the Congress to emerge as the first non-Congress CM of Uttar Pradesh, a young socialist leading who was agitations around canal irrigation issues, Mulayam Singh Yadav of Saifai, would get elected as a legislator of the Socialist Party for the first time. Another leader, then prime minister for one year, Indira Gandhi, was wrestling with the first general election under her watch and looking at significant states come into their own. West Bengal went the way of the United Front with the Bengal Congress and the CPI(M). In Tamil Nadu, the DMK swept to power, riding its mobilisation around an anti-Hindi agitation that destroyed the Congress’s near monopoly of the state.
Elsewhere, most states of western India and the north had one thing in common — the Samyukt Vidhayak Dals, or SVDs, that delivered the Jana Sangh into the national mainstream via a coalition with the socialists and some breakaway Congress members. In cracks that surfaced in the Congress after Nehru and then Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, the Jana Sangh found opportunities to emerge as a stakeholder in power.
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The kinds of parties that came to power in states or gained prominence were a rainbow: the Swatantra Party, the economically and socially right, along with the Hindu right Jana Sangh, the Socialist Party, the Communist parties and what was to become a preeminent regional party, DMK.
Some analysts trace the incipient idea of alignments between the socialists and the Jana Sangh back to three key byelections in 1963, where J B Acharya Kriplani in Amroha, Ram Manohar Lohia in Farrukhabad and Minoo Masani in Rajkot defeated the Congress after some deft campaigning by the socialists and the Jana Sangh from the same platform. Each of the three leaders was seen as leading an anti-Nehru voice; in these byelections, held shortly after India had lost the war to China, they were together able to amplify the sense of political uncertainty in the country.
Though 1963 saw the nascent beginnings of opposition to Nehru, it was in 1967 that a sharper, decisive blow was delivered to the Congress as it lost power in some major states, including Tamil Nadu and Bengal.
Much has changed in Indian politics five decades on, but the experiment of the SVD, now an ignored chapter in Indian politics, offers insights to the present and the future. What is striking is that politics then was the obverse of what it has become today. The Jana Sangh, struggling on the margins of politics, prised open the doors of power with alliances. The Congress, then the preeminent force, today stands at about the same electoral level as the Jana Sangh then; it has displayed the same anxiousness to make friends and fight as a front.