It is exactly a quarter of a century since the summer of 1987 when major changes began taking place in Indian politics. The events which were kickI started on April 16, 1987 with Swedish Radio's claims that AB Bofors paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians and key defence officials to secure the Howitzer deal, began a process that heralded the political demise of the Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. Within just two years, by the middle of 1989, it was clear that the Congress regime was going through the motions of somehow completing the last lap.
When the elections were held in November 1989, the Congress Party emerged as the single largest party but Rajiv Gandhi read the mandate correctly and declined the invitation of ‘copybook’ President R Venkataraman to form the government. In the election in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had led his party to victories in 404 Lok Sabha seats (even though polls were held in 515 seats as they were conducted later in Punjab and Assam due to political turbulence). This mandate declined to less than half as the Congress Party won just 197 seats in 1989. Though the Janata Dal won barely 143 seats, it was seen as the party with the moral right to govern. The parliamentary right came when the Bharatiya Janata Party with its 85 seats and the Left parties with 52 in their kitty offered outside support to the VP Singh led government.
There are strange similarities between what was seen in the summer of 1987 and the current political situation in the country. The Bofors scandal was actually symbolic of what was projected by the Opposition as corruption in high places and this had severe political fallout. There were riots in May 1987 in Meerut – Maliana and Hashimpura which the government of the day – there was a Congress government in power in Uttar Pradesh at that time – failed to control for several weeks. There was a Presidential election where the numbers were stacked in favour of the ruling party and they had little trouble in getting their nominee elected to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. In the current situation, each of these have parallels: the string of scams, the latest outbreak of violence in Assam and of course the presidential polls. The similarity between the present summer and the one in 1987 was also due to the vagaries of the weather: the drought of 1987 in some ways also contributed to hastening the process of the political decline of the Congress party. This year is yet to be declared a drought year and one would not wish for it to be declared such, but the monsoon is definitely deficient and will impact the economy and livelihood.
The ruling party was in decline in 1987 despite having the numbers on its side but some of the jargons that are currently being used (policy paralysis for instance) were applicable at that time also – the only difference being that then there was no parallel centre of power in the ruling edifice and no one on the horizon who was expected to take up any vacancy that the party felt was his or her rightful position.
Despite this, there is a tremendous difference between the summer of 1987 and the current political situation. This is due to the fact that while there was a robust Opposition in 1987 led by a hardworking former Congress leader in the form of VP Singh and ably supported by other political parties, the present situation shows an Opposition in disarray with the main opposition party – the Bharatiya Janata Party – not being in a position to play the role of a vibrant Opposition which is expected from it in a parliamentary democracy.
History may evaluate VP Singh for having being an opportunistic political leader who shaped his political belief and policies on the basis of calculation of what would sell with the people. However, history will not deny that between 1986 when he first started having troubles with the Rajiv Gandhi regime and 1989 when the verdict of the election for the ninth Lok Sabha came, he worked very hard touring the length and breadth of the country, at time in scorching heat, pouring rain and freezing winters. Same was the case with several others including the then top leadership of the BJP who kept a scorching pace. The situation has altered greatly as most political leaders at the national level – including in the BJP – believe that political campaigns are best waged from television studios and party offices in the course of daily briefing session for the media. One hardly gets to see the kind of effort that was made earlier in mobilising support of the people for specific issues.
However, it needs to be remembered that in 1987 the Opposition had a far greater challenge of gaining credibility among the voters. The disaster of the Janata Party experiment was fairly fresh in the minds of the people as the collapse of the Charan Singh government that necessitated the election for the seventh Lok Sabha had happened in August 1979. Moreover, after that the original Janata Party had split several times and had gone in different directions. In contrast, now the people are used to coalition politics with no party securing a clear majority of its own since 1984.
When the troubles for the Congress began in 1987 there were at least three residual parties from the original Janata Party besides one that went by the name of Congress (S) after having been metamorphosised from the faction which broke away from the Congress led by Indira Gandhi in 1978. The three residual parties were the Janata Party headed by Chandra Sekhar; the Lok Dal (though there were two factions – one headed by Devi Lal and the other by Ajit Singh) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. In October 1987, VP Singh formed Jan Morcha along with other colleagues who had left the Congress with him— Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammed Khan and Mufti Mohammed Saeed. A year later, the Jan Morcha merged with the Janata Party, the Lok Dal (both factions) and the Congress(S) to form the Janata Dal.
For the entire year prior to the merger of the four groups, there had been a debate within the BJP and among other parties on the question of whether the BJP should be a part of the new party or not. There were two issues on which the debate raged: within the BJP it was on the question of whether the party should once again join a group where political leaders of disparate ideologies had united with the sole agenda of anti-Congressism. Within other political parties – especially among the one-time socialists – the debate was on the issue that had led to the fall of the Janata Party government – the question of dual-membership, i.e. could the members of the BJP remain associated with the RSS and then agree to merge into a new party.
In any case, the BJP leaders decided against merger and retained the party’s distinct identity. The party however decided to forge electoral alliances and even join coalitions. This was first done in May 1987 when the assembly elections were held and the BJP first had an alliance with the Devi Lal faction of the Janata Party and thereafter, joined the government when Suraj Bhan and Sushma Swaraj of the BJP joined the state government as ministers. This set the tone for the 1989 Lok Sabha elections and there were seat adjustments with the Janata Dal which in turn forged a similar understanding with the Left parties and this resulted in the formation of another non-Congress government at the Centre.
The defeat of the Congress in 1989 was not just a self-goal on Rajiv Gandhi’s part. The leaders of the Janata Dal, the Left parties and the BJP worked very hard for the defeat. In terms of ideology the BJP and the Left parties were most clear about the policies they were pursuing and intended to follow. The BJP was clear that the experimentation with the legacy of the Janata Party between 1980 and 1985 had not been of much use and the party had fallen back to the Jana Sangh heritage. The issue of Ram Janmabhoomi formally became part of the BJP’s agenda in early 1989 with the National Executive adopting it in the party’s agenda at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. The BJP at that time had LK Advani at its helm who was clear about the ideological orientation and the need to induct new energy in the party.
The situation between 1987 and the current political atmosphere is different in one fundamental way: at that time the principal opposition was the brigade led by VP Singh but today it is the BJP. Unfortunately, the BJP is yet to show signs of being able to live up to the expectations of its cadre. Advani has gone on record to say that the BJP has been found to be wanting and has not been able to capitalise on the chances that have come its way. The UPA has been caught in a quagmire of its own creation since the middle of 2010, but so far none of the Opposition parties have been able to capitalise on this. It is still almost two years before parliamentary polls are due and the situation can transform. But unless opposition parties put their act together – and this includes mainly the BJP – the old adage will once again come true: with adversaries like the ones it has, the Congress party does not need too many friends.
(The writer is a senior print and TV journalist. He is also an author, writer and anchors the weekly show—A Page from History on Lok Sabha TV)