NDA govt back in charge, a short history of coalition politics in India

android, nda govt back in charge, a short history of coalition politics in india

Coalition politics has made a comeback at the national stage after 10 years of a de facto one-party rule as the BJP enjoyed majority on its own and did not depend on its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for legislative strength.

In the past 50-60 years, phases of coalition governments in India, on and off, have disrupted phases of single-party governments with clear majorities. Whenever a single party could not garner enough seats to come to power on its own, several “like-minded” parties came together to help it cross the majority mark in the Lok Sabha, or in state Assemblies to form stable governments.

Here is a look at the history of coalition politics in India.

Unstable SVD coalitions

In India, the experiment began in 1967, when the Congress fell short of a majority in many states even as it won a narrow majority in the Lok Sabha with 283 seats. This was the last time Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were held simultaneously in most states.

While the Congress emerged as the single largest party in 13 Assemblies, it did not get a majority in five: Bihar, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In the then Madras state, DMK of C N Annadurai defeated the Congress.

Coalition governments of the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) were formed in Punjab, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Madras and Kerala, as well as in the Delhi Metropolitan Council through arrangements within the Legislative Assembly. It heralded the coalition era. The glue of these ideologically disparate coalitions that included the Jana Sangh, Socialists, and even the Communists in some cases, was “anti-Congressism” that was on its own more powerful than these parties. In UP, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, coalition governments were formed with the help of Congress defectors Chaudhary Charan Singh, Rao Birender Singh, and Govind Narain Singh, respectively.

Most of these coalition governments proved to be short lived but offered the Opposition parties a template to take on the Congress. A grand alliance of Opposition parties took on the Congress in 1971 but Indira Gandhi, powered by her decision to abolish privy purses and the nationalisation of banks, swept to power with 352 seats.

The Janata umbrella

With the JP movement of 1974, Indira Gandhi's popularity began to wane. Once the Allahabad High Court struck down her election as an MP and the Supreme Court gave her only partial relief, the PM imposed Emergency in 1975, putting Opposition leaders in jail. By the time the Emergency was lifted and the next Lok Sabha polls were held in 1977, Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party, Congress (O), and Bharatiya Lok Dal went beyond forming coalitions by dissolving themselves into the Janata Party.

The Janata Party came to power in 1977 but collapsed in two years. Indira stormed back to power in 1980, bringing back single-party dominance. In 1984, this dominance reached new heights, as the Congress crossed 400 seats riding the sympathy wave after the Prime Minister’s assassination.

After the Bofors scandal rocked the Rajiv Gandhi government, V P Singh, the Defence Minister Rajiv sacked, became the fulcrum of another alliance to defeat the Congress. In 1989, Singh became PM with outside support of the BJP and the Left. His government fell a year later when the BJP withdrew support after L K Advani was arrested during his Rath Yatra to Ayodhya. In his place, Chandra Shekhar became PM for a brief while with Congress support.

Also Read | Why India needs a national security doctrine – now

Once the Chandra Shekhar government also fell, in 1991 the Congress returned to power and ran a minority government under P V Narasimha Rao from 1991 to 1996. In these five years, the BJP, riding a Hindutva wave, gained more popular support and began to compete with the Congress. To have a shot at power in a coalition era, it declared the moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee as its PM candidate and formed a 13-day government in 1996. With 161 seats, it emerged as the single-largest party in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections. But apart from the Shiv Sena, the Samata Party and the Haryana Vikas Party, it could not attract allies. The government fell as Vajpayee could not prove his majority.

United Front government

This led to two brief alternative coalition governments under H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, after which elections were ordered again in 1998. The 13-party United Front drew up a common minimum programme (CMP) for the first time, which emphasised secularism as a core guiding principle, in effect making it clear that the arrangement was aimed at keeping the BJP out of power. The CMP said the Ayodhya dispute was to be resolved by referring it to the Supreme Court under Article 138 (2) of the Constitution. The CMP also talked about strengthening the federal structure, and social justice and empowerment of the marginalised.

The coming of the NDA

In 1998, the BJP formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to take on the Congress. The aim was to reach out to several regional parties that wished to share power with the BJP. Of them, only the Shiv Sena shared the BJP's Hindutva ideology. The rest were regional parties that projected themselves as secular and also sought votes from Muslims.

Effectively, the success of the pre-poll NDA alliance depended on two core conditions: a moderate face (Atal Bihari Vajpayee), and a common minimum programme. It automatically excluded the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and issues such as national security, economic growth, and infrastructure development gained centre stage. That NDA was a collective of 23 parties, which included the AIADMK, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and the Trinamool Congress.

However, the government came under a crisis when Jayalalithaa withdrew the support of her 18 AIADMK MPs though the DMK immediately extended support to the NDA. Vajpayee then got an assurance from the BSP that its MPs would abstain during the trust vote. Giridhar Gamang who had become the Odisha CM but had not yet resigned as Koraput MP came to cast his vote. Saifuddin Soz defied his party the National Conference to vote against the Vajpayee government while the BSP went back on its word. Vajpayee lost power by one vote in April 1999.

Elections were ordered and the NDA government with Vajpayee at the helm returned to power. While the BJP secured 182 seats, the NDA as a whole got 269. After Chandrababu Naidu's TDP extended support, the NDA tally went past 300. The CMP remained as before, with key Hindutva issues kept out.

Although the third Vajpayee government completed its term, the BJP lost power in 2004 as the Congress, with 145 seats in the Lok Sabha, just seven more than the BJP, managed to cobble up a post-poll coalition to take power. The coalition was named the United Progressive Alliance and had outside support of the Left. While the NDA had 186 seats, the UPA had 216. The Communist parties lent outside support to the UPA, taking the number to 278, a clear majority.

Even as the Left withdrew support to the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in 2008 over the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, it survived and was re-elected in 2009. This time, the Congress alone won 206 seats, while the BJP was reduced to 116. The CMP remained roughly the same as before in the UPA-2.

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