With hardly four months to go for the general election, there is not a ghost of a chance for a single party government to take over at New Delhi in May 2009.
Looking back into recent history the era of a single party government at the Centre ended in 1996 after the Congress under P. V. Narasimha Rao lost in the election that year. The four non-Congress governments before 1991 were not coalitions in the true sense of the term. But their inner rumblings and final break-up had a lesson for the subsequent political developments.
The Janata Government of 1977 was the only government that came to power amidst unprecedented public enthusiasm, if we ignore the immediate post-Independence government under Jawaharlal Nehru. I still remember the wild enthusiasm that was witnessed at the indoor stadium where the Janata Party was formally launched after the Janata Government was sworn in.
In some sense it was a coalition as Congress (O), Jan Sangh, the Socialists and COD of Jagjivan Ram had worked together under an informal arrangement as Janata Party for facing the election in March 1977.
The story of its sad break-up and the political immaturity shown by senior leaders like Charan Singh in depending on Indira Gandhi to prop up a government of dissidents from the Janata has been analysed by many ever since 1979. Indira Gandhi cannot be blamed for lifting the draw bridge just before Charan Singh was to face Parliament. It still passeth my understanding how a senior leader could believe that Indira Gandhi would prop up a government that would continue the prosecutions launched against her. But the fact is that the lure of power blinds reason.
That politicians can also be ridiculous has been proven time and again. Consider for instance Chandra Shekhar toppling the VP Singh government with the active support of the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi. The experience of Charan Singh with Indira Gandhi did not strike a warning to a political veteran like the one and only Chandra Shekhar. Rajiv Gandhi used a simple ruse to withdraw support after having achieved his main purpose of dethroning VP Singh: presence of Haryana sleuths outside his residence. If the ruse was so transparent a ploy and appeared silly to the supporters of Chandra Shekhar, it is they who should be blamed. Were they such simpletons to believe that Rajiv Gandhi would keep Chandra Shekhar with just some 52 MPs with him in power for even 12 months?
Even the VP Singh government propped up by the BJP on the right and the Left parties on the other side, was a coalition of sorts. The Janata Dal, the official name of the party in power was a combination of the remanants of the Janata Party under Chandra Shekhar, Lok Dal under Ajit Singh and VP Singh'sbreak away group from the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi. The three parted company soon before the 1991 elections. Chandra Shekhar'sparty was soon reduced to a single member outfit and passed into history'sdustbin though his own personality remained as a Sotto Voce in Indian politics.
It is in the area of speculation now to wonder whether the Congress would have got back to power in 1991 had Rajiv Gandhi been alive. The evidence either way is inconclusive; in the polling that took place before Rajiv Gandhi'sassassination the VP Singh party did make a showing along with its allies. After the assassination the resultant sympathy wave swept the electorate to vote Congress. Even then the party had not won a majority. But P.V. Narasimha Rao, never a flamboyant politician, managed to play the BJP and the Left one against the other and buy some defectors to keep his minority government going. Hats off to his capacity for political maneuver.
The true coalition era began afterwards. The Janata Dal led coalition of dissident Congressmen from TN, Left parties and others were supported from the outside by the Congress under Sitaram Kesri. It was unstable from the word go and Kesri toppled it within a year only to be replaced by another unstable Janata led coalition that too lasted a year only. In 1989 the non-Congress slogan was to keep the Congress out at any cost. In 1996 when the elections brought BJP as the largest single party but not a majority, the political wheel had turned a full circle and the non-BJP parties came together on the slogan: keep the BJP out of power at any cost.
There was another turn of the wheel once the slogan to isolate BJP was found to be unworkable. So in 1998, then in 1999 the BJP-led multi-party coalition came to power. Janata Dal, DMK, TDP, NC and many other parties joined with the BJP especially before the 1999 election and there was even a joint manifesto before the poll. The first true coalition was born under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The TDP gave outside support but it lasted almost its full term but for the miscalculation in rushing to an early election.
Considered in the context of the so called ideological differences between the constituent parties, it is remarkable that the Vajpayee-led coalition could last so long and work largely as a united force despite some critical issues almost sundering the group. Now that the subsequent Congress-led coalition of disparate groups is also about to end its term, it would be interesting to do a clinical study on their comparative effectiveness. Vajpayee'sskill to contain his regional party allies on the one hand and the ideological overkill of his own partymen on the other, was the glue that kept them together unlike the negative perspective of political untouchability that held the Congress-led coalition.
In effectiveness also the Vajpayee-led coalition scores. It could push through some controversial legislations like the Electricity Act 2003, several other programmes of economic liberalization, touched off a massive telecom revolution with the private sector leading it, the sarva shikhsa abhiyan and a finally the launch of the massive highways programme. In contrast the Manmohan Singh government was stymied at every step by the Left that kept the government in power but did not allow it to function the way the PM wanted it to do. ?This is not a one issue government?, the Prime Minister had to admit when he had to abandon his deal with the US Administration on nuclear energy. At the fag end of his regime he took a gamble in pushing through it and succeeded mainly because he could balance the loss of Left support with the strength of the Samajvadi Party.
What is the lesson in all this for the next coalition that would be voted to power as we cannot see any single party winning some 250 seats? The first lesson is that there has to be some basic agreement on the need for economic reforms and the way market economy should work in this country. The need to bring in the private sector as a partner in development is steadily ramming at the ideological commitment of even the Marxists. We have seen what Singur and Nandigram have done to them despite being in power for 30 years at a stretch. Globalisation may be an ideologically haram. But democratization, activation of civil society, non-governmental initiatives and knowledge revolution is breaking down old barriers and attitudes. Parties both of the right and the left would be battered by these developments.
If the coming election throws up a coalition that has failed to understand the nuances of these changes the coalition would continue to be unstable or ineffective or both, as it happened with the Janata experiment in 1977. The first thing to end is this farce of outside support with political untouchability towards some as the sole glue.
If there is no inner commitment to these changes even one party government or party with the largest number leading the coalition is likely to be facing inner grumblings. Coalition for the sake of power alone would be disastrous; coalition for facilitating the Indian response to a global change under a visionary leadership could work wonders and leave a footprint on history like the Vajpayee government did.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)