Maharashtra strongman Y.B. Chavan had aspired to be Prime Minister after the fall of the Morarji Desai government in 1979. He came a cropper when President Sanjeeva Reddy asked what kind of a PM he would make with the committed support of just the Congress (O) elements in the truncated Janata Party?
The mantle to succeed Morarji fell eventually on his bete noire, the Bharatiya Lok Dal’s Charan Singh whom posterity remembers as the only PM who quit before facing Parliament; a deeply embarrassing first replicated a decade later by Chandra shekhar whom destiny and the Congress, the outside supporter of his rump regime, denied the honour of unfurling the tricolour at Red Fort.
Three decades and ten PMs later, the question Reddy asked Chavan hasn’t lost its relevance, more so when another Maratha, the NCP’s Sharad Pawar and several other regional chieftains could eventually be in the contest for the PM’s slot. Past governments led by six of these worthies collapsed in less than a year: Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra shekhar, Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral. Even A.B. Vajpayee lasted 13 days after his first shot at power in 1996.
Mothered by split mandates and post-poll intrigues, these regimes perished for the very reasons for which they were created: political expediency reinforced by fractured mandates. In the face of a myriad challenges on the economic and foreign policy fronts, the country cannot afford a repeat of history, especially when it promises to be a tragic farce.
A factor common to all anti- and non-Congress (or anti-BJP) experiments at governance since 1977 has been their centrifugal instability that repeatedly delivered not one but two PMs: Charan Singh after Morarji, Chandra shekhar after VP and Inder Gujral after Deve Gowda. What compounded the irony was that mid-term polls couldn’t be avoided even after changing horses midstream.
Congress rebel V.P. Singh was the natural choice for leading the 1989 Janata Dal government supported from outside by the Left and the BJP. It was a loose reincarnation of the 1977 Janata experiment that had raised hopes of India moving to a bi-polar polity. The Morarji-Charan Singh pantomime that balkanised the Janata Party and dashed such optimism found reflection in Chandra shekhar’s near-fratricidal impatience with VP.
But he alone wasn’t to be blamed. To install VP as PM, Arun Nehru hatched a plan that beguiled Chandra shekhar into believing that Devi Lal was the party’s choice. The Young Turk was stunned when the Jat leader transferred his candidature to VP at a party meeting in the Central Hall and got it endorsed in a flash.
Chandra shekhar avenged the betrayal in less than a year when VP lost the BJP’s support on Ayodhya. Veteran socialist Surendra Mohan told me the Congress first offered to prop up Madhu Dandavate. It assured Chandra shekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party a year-long stint only when the S.R. Bommai-led JD spurned feelers sent through A.R. Antulay. The parent Dal resisted the bait in the fond hope that early polls will help it en-cash the Mandal card.
In the end, both were losers. Chandra Shekhar lost power in four months (over alleged police surveillance at Rajiv Gandhi’s 10, Janpath residence) and the Dal its chance to capitalise on the social justice plank for want of electoral unity in UP.
That era in Indian politics is instructive as much for what could be in store now or was on demonstration in 1996: the PM’s office dwarfed by incumbents living on borrowed legislative support. Wise after the 1989 experience, VP, after Vajpayee’s exit for want of allies, remained unmoved by a joint appeal by the Left and three sitting Chief ministers — Chandrababu Naidu, Gowda and Lalu Yadav — to return to the job. He floated Jyoti Basu’s name in the firm belief that the Congress wouldn’t bury the hatchet with him after what he did to Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors issue.
As is now history, Jyoti Basu was the victim of a ‘historic blunder’ the CPI(M) wants mitigated if delivered the numbers for a third front regime. But such adventurism is nothing short of an affront to popular mandate. There is no other way to describe the comparable 1996-98 spectacles that threw up three prime ministers — one from the single largest party, the BJP and two from the Janata Dal with 40-odd MPs in the 545-member House.
Gowda became PM by default after VP’s refusal and Basu’s exclusion. His qualification: paucity of willing candidates and the anxiety of United Front partners to smother P.V. Narasimha Rao’s renewed bid for power (through false claims of potential support from the Left) by projecting a leader from the South.
Gujral hit the jackpot when Gowda’s threats of jailing Sitaram Kesari in a murder case prompted the paranoid Congress chief to seek a leadership change. As the CPI(M)’s H.S. Surjeet famously remarked, not one Lok Sabha MP owed personal loyalty to Gujral, harassed and defied by his own partymen on the floor of Parliament.
In these troubled times, India needs a stable government rooted in adequate legislative support. Not one that lives by the hour.
Barkha Dutt’s column ‘Third Eye’ will be back next week.