India’s Experiments with Coalition Politics

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The 1996 elections marked the end of the domination of the Indian National Congress and saw an era of coalition politics. It also saw the BJP emerge as the single-largest party, as it rose to power on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue.

Babri Masjid demolition | DNA
Babri Masjid demolition | DNA

However, since most other political parties considered the BJP a communal party, they refused to support it in Parliament and the BJP government lasted only 13 days.

A new political alliance, the United Front, staked its claim to form the government. It consisted of 13 parties, some regional. And it faced its first challenge as soon as it came to power.

Jyoti Basu | Wikimedia Commons
Jyoti Basu | Wikimedia Commons

The first choice of the UF for a Prime Ministerial candidate was V P Singh, but he declined. Jyoti Basu of CPI (M) was the second choice, but his own party vetoed it. Finally, Janata Dal leader H D Deve Gowda was elected as their leader.

H D Deve Gowda | Wikimedia Commons
H D Deve Gowda | Wikimedia Commons

Deve Gowda was sworn in as Prime Minister on 1st June 1996, with outside support from the Congress. It is this dependence on outside support that makes any coalition government vulnerable.

The fiasco of the Charan Singh and Chandrashekhar governments supported by the Congress from the outside, in the ’70s and ’90s, wasn’t forgotten. And the United Front government met the same fate.

On 11th April 1997, the Deve Gowda government fell, in less than 11 months, when the Congress withdrew its support. The CBI had been making progress in the Bofors scam case, an issue sensitive to the Gandhi family and the Congress felt the government had to go.

I K Gujral | Wikimedia Commons
I K Gujral | Wikimedia Commons

The Congress and the United Front reached a compromise and I K Gujral was made Prime Minister on 21st April, 1997. But, again, there was trouble around the corner.

Gujral refused to sack DMK ministers in his government, on the Congress’s insistence, after the DMK was accused of aiding the LTTE in Tamil Nadu, which had led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress withdrew its support to Gujral on 28th Nov 1997.

National Democratic Alliance | Wikimedia Commons
National Democratic Alliance | Wikimedia Commons

These were two unstable coalition governments that lacked a dominant party at their core. It was a situation that was not repeated with future coalitions, such as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.

United Progressive Alliance | Wikimedia Commons
United Progressive Alliance | Wikimedia Commons

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