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The Janata Party fiasco of 1979 offers surprising reminders about coalition governments in India

13 10 73
12.02.2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah have often mocked the alliances that the Opposition has forged in different states for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Underlying their disdain for such groupings is the fear that the regional outfits could dramatically bring down the BJP’s numbers in Parliament, and then join hands to form a coalition government, with the Congress leading it or supporting it from outside.

By ridiculing the Opposition alliances, both Modi and Shah perhaps hope to revive memories about past coalition governments that collapsed before completing their five-year terms. They possibly think this could persuade people to support the BJP for political stability in the upcoming elections.

The irony is that but for one exception, all coalition governments unravelled because of the national parties, whether the BJP or Congress. The only exception was the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s withdrawal of support to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who failed the test of majority in the Lok Sabha in 1999.

There have been seven instances when prime ministers in India resigned because they lost the majority they commanded. None of their names are as deeply inscribed in public memory as that of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh. These two leaders who were brought to their knees in 1979-1980 because of relentless squabbles in their Janata Party.

In hindsight, however, it is simplistic to only ascribe the Janata Party’s collapse to the overweening ambition of its leaders. At the root of its crisis was the issue of dual membership, a term coined to describe Janata Party legislators who were also members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The dual membership was of particular significance for the Janata Party as it had been constituted through the merger of several political entities. The Janata Party consisted of the Congress (Organisation), the group from whom Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her supporters broke away in 1969; the Congress for Democracy led by Jagjivan Ram and Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna; the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, which was renamed the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980; Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Lok Dal, and an assortment of socialists.

At the Janata Party’s inception, all its constituents agreed to erase their distinctive........

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