Indian Democracy at Cross-roads 3: Experiment in Coalition Politics-Rise and Fall of the Janata Gove

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By Dr Eugene DSouza
Bellevision Media Network

India is due to face one of the greatest challenges within few weeks when 81.45 crores of voters will cast their votes in the general election to elect 543 members of the sixteenth Lok Sabha. The general election will be held in nine phases, the longest election in the country’s history, from 7 April to 12 May 2014. Voting will take place in all 543 parliamentary constituencies of India. The result of this election will be declared on 16 May 2014, before the 15th Lok Sabha completes its constitutional mandate on 31 May 2014.


There is a lot of speculation all-around regarding the possible outcome of the general election. It seems that the wind is clearly blowing in the direction of the Narendra Modi led BJP and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) which is predicted to sweep the polls whereas the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is being written off as the party and alliance that is doomed to utter failure.


In spite of these predictions, one cannot underestimate the regional parties who collectively can topple the applecart of the NDA by coming together on a common platform in the form of a Third Front. But one cannot forget the previous experiments with such a possibility as each of the regional leaders entertain an ambition of becoming Prime Minister. Hence, their efforts would be to win the maximum number of seats so that they could have bargaining power to put forward their own claim for the Prime Ministerial Chair.


A lot of churning is going on in the political ocean as alliances are being formed and disgruntled ticket-losers in one party jumping the bandwagon of other parties. As winning is the prime ‘mantra’ of all political parties, they are in the process of fielding candidates with criminal background and corrupt practices. The general election of 2014 has been generating a lot of heat and dust. As such it would be interesting to be a witness to the historical event by understanding the forces and personalities that shape the future of this great country. would bring out analytical articles by experts on the forthcoming elections that would provide insight into the historical general election of 2014. 

- Team


Udupi, Mar 21, 2014 : As the country is in the election mode and there is much speculation about the emergence of the Third Front or Alternate Front, it would be appropriate to recall the first experiment in the coalition government that India had experienced between 1977 and 1979 following the much maligned ‘Emergency’ period from 1975 to 1977. This coalition government was an outcome of the anger of the people and opposition political leaders against the ‘excesses’ of the Congress government led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi especially during the Emergency period. However, the first experiment with the coalition politics was doomed to fail due to personal ambitions of political leaders and divergent ideologies propelling the individual political parties forming the conglomeration under the name of the Janata Party.


The Indian National Congress (INC) that was founded in 1885 as an organized movement for freedom struggle achieved its goal on 15 August 1947 as India became independent. Following the implementation of the Constitution in 1950 under which the first ever democratic elections were held in 1952, the Congress party was given mandate by the people of India to form the government at the centre. Thereafter, the INC went on ruling the country under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru till 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri, for a brief period till 1965 and Mrs. Indira Gandhi till 1977 out of which the last two years of her regime (1975-77) were known as the years of Emergency in the country.


The first half of the 1970 decade had witnessed a lot of unrest and dissatisfaction against the Congress rule in general and Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s way of functioning in particular. As a reaction to the apparent ‘dictatorial’ rule of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Jayapraksh Narayan, a veteran freedom fighter started  an anti-Indira Gandhi, anti-Congress movement that popularly came to be known as the ’JP Movement’. As the popularity of Mrs. Indira Gandhi began to plummet and unrest across the country became quite serious, she declared internal emergency on 25 June 1975 which has been know as the ‘dark chapter’ in Indian democracy.


Indiria Gandhi

The Emergency was by necessity a time-bound situation and Mrs. Gandhi could not continue it indefinitely without being accused of dictatorship. Time and again during the Emergency, she had made it clear verbally as well as in print, that the Emergency would be lifted and elections would be held when the country was restored to a stable condition.


Mrs. Gandhi broke her enigmatic silence and in her characteristic style, on the night of 18 January 1977, she took the country by surprise by announcing that the president had been advised to dissolve the Lok Sabha and order fresh elections. She also assured that the opposition leaders would be released from prison and the Emergency would be lifted gradually. On 19 January 1977, the president dissolved the fifth Lok Sabha and the General Election was set for the end of March 1977.


Jayaprakash Narayan welcomed Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to hold elections, but demanded that for elections to be free and fair the “Emergency must be lifted, press censorship removed, citizen’s civil liberties restored and all political prisoners released.” However, he was worried about the inability of the opposition parties to come together to form a single party. He even threatened to disassociate himself from the elections if the opposition did not forge unity.


JP Narayan

The opposition parties realized the urgency of the situation and the Congress (O), Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) and the Socialist leaders met at the residence of Morarji Desai on the very day of his release on 18 January 1977 to explore the possibility of opposition unity. These four parties decided to constitute into a new party to be named as the Janata Party. The Janata Party sent feelers to the Akalis in Punjab who showed their willingness to join hands with it. The CPI (M) was willing to have an electoral alliance with the Janata Party. The DMK also agreed to have an electoral adjustment with Congress (O) in Tamil Nadu.


Soon after the announcement of elections, there was scramble for Congress tickets. A feeling was running along the Congress rank and file that in the final list a large number of nominees of Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of Mrs. Indira Gandhi would be given Congress tickets and many of the old-timers would be dropped.


When things were seemingly going well for the Congress, on 2 February 1977, Jagjivan Ram gave a jolt to Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the Congress (I) not only by resigning from the cabinet but also from the primary membership of the Congress (I) deploring the many excesses of the Emergency. The news of Jagjivan Ram’s exit from the party shook the Congress organization all over the country. Opposition circles, on the other hand, were jubilant. Jagjivan Ram along with H.N. Bahuguna and Nandini Satpathy formed the Congress For Democracy (CFD). The CFD forged a common front with the Janata Party to give a straight fight to the Congress (I).



Jagjivan Ram


The election campaign was centered on the Emergency. Mrs. Gandhi had to fight her party’s electoral battle almost single-handed. The rapid rise of the Janata Party and its increasing popularity surprised Mrs. Gandhi. She referred to the Janata Party as the ‘Janata Front’ and not ‘Party’. She dubbed it as a mixture of parties with divergent ideologies. She predicted that a coalition would result in a weak Centre, lending itself to all kinds of internal and external pressures and dangers.


The opposition parties mounted a ferocious personal campaign against Mrs. Gandhi, her son Sanjay and their supporters. They made the Emergency and its excesses the major issues of the election. The Janata Party posed the issue before the electorate as a choice between ‘freedom or slavery’, and promised to return to normalcy and the full restoration of all civil liberties. A vote for Janata, they said, was a vote for democracy against dictatorship.


Following elections, the results stunned the Congress (I) and surprised the nation. Against all expectations the Janata Party and its allies scored a brilliant victory with 330 out of 542 seats. The Congress was left with only 154 seats, with CPI its ally getting 7 and the AIADMK 21 seats. North India became the Waterloo for the Congress (I), where it won only two seats out of 234 in seven northern states. In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of all, Congress (I) did not win a single seat. Even Mrs. Gandhi lost the election in Rae Bareilly constituency to her rival Raj Narain. This was the only instance in Indian political history that a sitting prime minister had been humiliated in such a manner.


However, ironically, South India remained loyal to Mrs. Indira Gandhi and surprisingly the Congress improved its tally from 70 seats in 1971 to 92 seats in 1977. This was chiefly due to the fact that the adverse effects of the Emergency measures were not severely felt in the South, and the Twenty-Point Programme had achieved better results and had benefited a large section of the poorer people. The Janata Party won only six seats in the four southern states. Thus, after thirty years of being in power, the Congress was displaced as India’s ruling party.


Having lost the elections to Lok Sabha, Mrs. Gandhi advised the Acting President B.D. Jatti (President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had died on 11 February 1977) to revoke the internal Emergency on 21 March 1977. On the next day she submitted her resignation to the Acting president, but was asked to continue till the new prime minister was sworn in.


Work of the Janata Government:

The first act of the newly elected members of the Janata Party was to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat. In the morning of 24 March 1977, a unique ceremony was held at Rajghat where the members of the Janata Party and CFD assembled under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya Kriplani and took a solemn oath pledging to earnestly fulfill the task that Gandhiji had begun and to serve the people. They also promised to practice austerity and honesty in personal and public life.


Morarji Desai


The first coalition experiment in Indian democracy faced difficulties right from the inception of the government. The choice of the prime minister created the initial crisis. There were three contenders to the top post, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and Charan Singh. Rather than resorting to vote, the system of consensus was adopted, and the 81-year-old Morarji Desai was declared as the next Prime Minister. The Council of ministers was formed through an accommodative attitude of the constituent groups of the Janata Party. It was agreed that the major groups of the ruling alliance would have two members each in the Cabinet. BLD was represented by Charan Singh and Raj Narain, Jan Sangh by Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, CFD by Jagjivan Ram and H.N. Bahuguna, Congress (O) by Ramachandran and Sikander Bhakt, the Socialist Party by George Fernandes and Madhu Dandavate, the Young Turks by Mohan Dharia and Purushottam Lal Kaushik, the Akalis by Prakash Singh Badal. The first coalition government had a total of 44 members in the Council of Ministers.


On 1 May 1977, at a meeting of the leaders of the four constituents of the Janata Party, BLD, the Congress (O), the Socialist Party and the Jan Sangh merged their identities and declared that their parties had merged into the Janata Party. On 5 May, the CFD also merged with the Janata Party.


Soon after assuming office, the Janata government tried to undo some of the administrative measures adopted by Mrs. Indira Gandhi.  It took measures to dismantle the authoritarian features of the Emergency by releasing political prisoners, abolishing Press censorship, scrapping the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), restoring the rule of law and guaranteeing the independence of the courts. The arbitrary laws were reviewed and the Constitution was amended twice(43rd and 44th Amendments) by which many of the objectionable changes incorporated in the 42nd Amendment passed during the Emergency were removed.


In order to probe the excesses committed by the Indira Gandhi regime during the Emergency, the Janata government appointed the Shah Commission in May 1977, under J.C. Shah, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India. After thoroughly going through various records and holding interviews with various officers and even ministers in the former Congress government, the Commission submitted its first interim Report in March 1978, second in April and final in August 1978.


When the Shah Commission submitted its Reports the Janata government was not sure as to the nature of action that should be taken, especially against Mrs. Gandhi. Various alternatives, including disenfranchisement of Mrs. Gandhi or trial by a special court were considered. However, the Janata leaders did not feel a sense of urgency in taking action on the Shah Commission Report. One section of the Janata leadership was of the opinion that the normal course of justice could examine the charges and deliver judgment. However, Prime Minister Morarji Desai was of the view that the people had already punished Mrs. Gandhi and nothing more was necessary to be done.


While attempting to pose as an alternate coalition government, the Janata government adopted certain policies and measures that were quite controversial. One of them was the removal of J.R.D. Tata from the Chairmanship of Air India in February 1978. JRD Tata was a highly respected and progressive figure in India who had been considered as the ‘father of Indian aviation’. J.R.D. Tata was replaced by Air Marshal Lal as the chairman of Air India.


JRD Tata


Another major and unprecedented political decision taken by the Janata government was to dismiss governments in nine Congress-ruled states and order new elections to the assemblies. The justification for this action was that those governments had lost the mandate of the people to govern as the Congress had lost national elections in those states. The affected states were: Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, M.P., Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, U.P., and West Bengal. Elections were held in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry as well. Following the elections in June 1977, except in Tamil Nadu (AIADMK), the Janata Party and its allies secured majority and in West Bengal, CPM, a Janata ally secured an absolute majority. Having reconstituted the state assemblies, the Janata Party found it easy to get its candidate, N. Sanjiva Reddy elected unopposed as the President of India in July 1977.


The Janata government repudiated the Nehruvian vision of rapid economic development based on large-scale industry, modern agriculture, and advanced science and technology. However, it failed to evolve an alternate strategy or model of economic or political development to deal with the problems of economic underdevelopment. The Janata government laid more emphasis on labour-intensive small-scale industry in place of large-scale industry; decentralization in place of national planning; and rich-peasant-led agricultural development based on generous subsidies, reduction in land revenue, and massive shift of resources from industry to the rural sector.


Within a year of the Janata Party’s rule, the economy, in both agriculture and industry began to stagnate. In 1978 and 1979, severe drought and devastating floods in several states affected agricultural production. Prices of food grains began to rise. Petroleum price rise in international market again let loose trends in inflation. The heavy deficit financing in the 1979 budget shot up inflation beyond twenty per cent. There was a lot of discontent in the country. The government was helpless and was torn by dissensions. The law and order situation in the country began to deteriorate and the government was not able to deal with the growing social tension in rural areas. There were also strikes and mutinies by policemen and paramilitary forces.


The government wasted its energy on unimportant issues like total prohibition, a fad of Morarji Desai. Total prohibition meant loss of revenue from excise, which could have been used for national development. A lot of money had to be spent on imposing prohibition. Besides, corruption and bootlegging increased due to this policy that was bound to fail from its inception. The Janata governments at the center and in the states took no initiative in speeding up land reforms. The scheme of the government to auction gold was a failure. In spite of warnings of adverse effects, the Janata government went ahead with the scheme, which was suspended only after large quantities of gold had been auctioned. There were allegations that a small coterie of bullion dealers managed to corner the gold at the cost of the national exchequer.


The Janata government justified the Freedom of Religion Bill introduced by a private member in the Parliament. This created doubts and suspicion in the minds of the minorities about the real intensions of the government. This not only damaged the image of the Janata Party, but was also suspected of being influenced by communal forces. Though it is true that conversions of people by force, inducement or intimidation are undesirable, the problem could have been left to the states affected by it. The involvement of the Central government in such matters was felt unnecessary.


The greatest setback of the Janata government was its failure to complete the full term of five years. In spite of the merger of all the constituents of the Janata Party in May 1977, the units comprising the party retained their individual identities with pre-Janata loyalties. This was chiefly due to ideological differences, factional interests and personal ambitions of different leaders. The Janata Party was an uneasy alliance of many different interests. It consisted of various political groups, which had united only to fight Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The infighting and constant bickering in the party both at the Centre and in the states paralyzed the working of the government and administration. Each political party tried to assert its own position in the government and administration.


Ideologically, the Jan Sangh tried to promote its communal agenda through various methods such as rewriting textbooks to suit its ideology, recruitment to official media, educational institutions and the police. With a hard core of 90 members in the Parliament, the Jan Sangh tried to maintain its separate ideological and communal identity within the government. It never attempted to merge with the Janata Party. It had close links with the RSS, which provided it cadres and ideology. Congress (O) was secular but conservative and temperamentally Congress. BLD was secular, but it had the interests of the rich-peasantry at its heart. The Socialists did not have a wider base in India except in Bihar. Under these circumstances, the Janata experiment was bound to be short-lived.


Fall of the Janata Government:

Charan Singh, leader of the BLD who was determined to become the prime minister in March 1977, immediately after the elections, had to withdraw in favour of Morarji Desai. From that time he never gave up his ambition to become the premier of the country. He resorted to all kinds of tactics to strengthen his position so that one day he would become the prime minister. Even when he was removed from the Cabinet in June 1978, he still continued with his ambition. After he was taken back in the Cabinet in January 1979, Charan Singh used his position as deputy prime minister and finance minister to consolidate his position in the government. He finally had his dream realized when in July 1979, he broke up the Janata Party and the government with the help of the Socialists.


Charan Singh


Madhu Limaye, the Socialist Party member had raised the question of dual membership of the RSS and the Janata Party. Many Janata Party members of the Parliament and state assemblies had been members of the RSS long before Jan Sangh was born. Although the Jan Sangh had merged in the Janata Party, they continued to be members of both the Janata Party and the RSS. The issue became more acute when the relationship between Jan Sangh and BLD became strained. In the final analysis it was the dual membership issue that led to the fall of the Janata government. The BLD and Socialist members finally walked out of the Janata Party and the government on the refusal of the Jan Sangh members to give up their dual membership. Being reduced to a minority government, Morarji Desai resigned on 15 July 1979.


A week later, Charan Singh formed the government in alliance with the Chavan-wing of the Congress (U), some of the Socialists and with the outside support of Congress (I) and CPI. However, he was not destined to face the Parliament. On 20 August 1979, a day before he was to seek the vote of confidence, Mrs. Gandhi withdrew the support from the Charan Singh government. The reason ascribed was that Charan Singh had rejected her demand to scrap the Special Courts set up to prosecute her. On the advice of Charan Singh, the president dissolved the Lok Sabha and mid-term elections were announced. Following which the Congress under the leadership of Mrs. Indira Gandhi once again regained power at the centre.


The failure of the first experiment in the Coalition Government in India has a number of lessons to be learnt. But it seems that the political leaders have been poor students of history and apparently have learnt nothing from it. Similar experiments in coalition governments were undertaken later in the form of  the National Front under the leadership of  first V.P. Singh followed by Chandrashekhar as Prime Ministers between 1989 and 1991 and later  the United Front Government led by first H.D. Deve Gowda and later by I.K. Gujral from 1989 to 1991.


              VP Singh                                                                                                          Chandrashekhar


H.D. Deve Gowda


IK Gujral


These coalition governments had to take outside support from either Congress or BJP or Left Front.  V.P Singh’s National Front government was supported by the BJP and Left Front and the United Front government of H.D. Deve Gowda was supported by the Congress and the Left Front.  However, Such coalition governments could never be stable as history had proved. In the light of these historical facts, other than NDA or UPA coalitions the talk of any Third or Alternate Front would be an experiment in futile as has been evident by the recent reports and given the multiple claimants for the Prime Minister’s throne such as Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Mulayam Singh, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik and many others.


(From various sources)




Comments on this Article
Philip Mudartha, Mumbai Sat, April-12-2014, 4:33
Vicky Udupi, your two cents are worth in gold, man! My advice for you is SELL partially stocks from your portfolio and book profits before Modi balloon bursts..make some money, check the graphs I have given in part 8 until May 12...between may 12-15 twiddle your thumbs, on may 16 eat your nails and boom, May 17..stay clear of markets and watch live models or head to movies... sitting down to pen my next on models..
Vicky, Udupi Thu, April-10-2014, 9:56

Great work and excellent insights by Philip and Dr.Eugene. Rather than depending on the syndicated and canned columnists, we can actually vibe with the home grown views. Here are my two cents: Even die-hard Congress supporters would secretly agree that their leaders deserve to sit in the opposition bench this time. They had the golden opportunity to initiate long term policies and structural reforms. Who can forget Manmohan’s momentous grand stand during UPA-1 when he dared to risk his Government for something he belived in and the country desperately needed? Yes, energy security to ensure India’s place among the global challengers ! We hoped and dreamed and painfully witnessed the illustrious party lose its sense of direction, values, leadership, connectivity and the heritage bit by bit. Political monasticism and a stint at the opposition bench could help them to reflect and smell the coffee. No, I am not plugging for BJP either. They have stacked the deck too much in favor of Modi which will prove to be the undoing. It is a huge error to assume that Gujarath model which has thrived in a homogenous, crony capitalistic environment will work in a vast mosaic of diverse India. One can safely bet that their policies will be corporate friendly, with the exclusion of almost everything else (and all ’general’ Indians). Will the BJP Govt survive 5 years? Having seen the Prelude to Scene-1 (election) and a glimpse of the cast in waiting, I am again willing to take a bet that there will be vanishing act by quite a few allies mid-stream. AAP is simply not there yet. Here is AK, willing to roll up his sleeves, bend the back and get the hands dirty. Pity he doesn’t fit into the Barby Doll image of our corporate muscle wielders and the all-consuming media mob (aka Rajdeep, Barka, Arnab and cute many). AAP concept is riveting and captivating but, alas, the Indian voters have steadily moved towards region based politics, religious partisanship and scratch-my- back opportunism. If AAP has the stamina and the sensibility to keep plugging away and spread the concept, they might make it count in a few years time. Look at W.Bengal. Left Wing was destined to rule the state for the next 200 years. Mamata Banerjee, never mind her orientation, toppled them by sticking around and shouting around loud. Who do I vote for?

Philip Mudartha, Mumbai Mon, March-24-2014, 12:11
@Benedict Noronha The American Democratic Systems are very complex. It is factually incorrect that candidates to be elected as their representatives in the Congress are barred from contesting after say three terms. No, they can contest as many times as they are given party ticket or contest as independent. The former house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, at 76 yrs, has contested fourteen times and is likely to contest again. Only President and Governors have term limitations, currently for President being two consecutive terms.
Benedict Noronha, Udupi / India Sat, March-22-2014, 6:52
The Article by Dr Eugene D souza is an excellent recollection of India of our times.It shows clearly that man being a social animmal, greedy for money, name and fame, all these ups and downs happen. None of these leaders worked for comon man of India. The root cause is youngsters did not take politics seriously and engaged in pen pushing luxurious jobs. and even did not cast their vote effectively. I stressed that we must follow American patter of elections and there must be a restriction of representation say for THREE terms and the candidates must be under 65 years. The age restriction is to have retirement age for every field and after 65 only President, Vice President and party leadership. This would have controlled a well defined democratic values. Mr Rahul Gandhi s thinking is almost close to this but his party leaders at the top do not accomodate his ideas and views fully. That is the problem. Yet I maintian that it is Indian National Congress gave an effective ( with defects) Leadership that only will do so in future also. Therefore all like minded people must think loudly to strengthen INC and bring about a change of younger generation to rule India.CAST YOUR VOTE !
Ronald Sabi, Moodubelle Sat, March-22-2014, 3:00
Indira Gandhi was one among the few most powerful leaders India has ever seen. She crushed Khalistan movement and nationalized banks. Today both these steps are seen mighty bold and saved India from further disaster. Corruption started showing ugly head after Indira s departure. Today we need a powerful leader like Indira to crush Kahmir problems and other major problems. At the current scenario, we can not see a person of this desired caliber!
Philip Mudartha, Mumbai Fri, March-21-2014, 10:08
I saw Derek O Brien, TMC spokesperson and RS member, making an eloquent case for a non-BJP non-INC alternate front on a private TV channel. BJP at the head of NDA has ruled for six years. INC at the head of UPA rules since ten years. Both are two sides of the same coin. There is hardly ny difference on any policies except the social base they represent. Therefore, a third force must emerge. Only it is not yet on our political horizon. AAP holds such a promise, but it is just an enfante terrible yet.
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