Looking back: When United Front put up a fight against the BJP
In 1996, a group of regional parties and the Left formed a United Front (UF) government.india Updated: Apr 01, 2018 10:27 IST
Talks have intensified in the last few weeks to create a federal coalition of regional parties against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hindustan Times looks back at the last non-Congress, non-BJP government in power.
Context: As 2019 approaches, political parties such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have stepped up efforts to forge a wider pact to keep the BJP out of power. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was in Delhi last week and met a range of political actors; she now intends to travel to state capitals. This comes in the backdrop of the BJP appearing slightly more vulnerable than it has so far in its term. It lost the Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha bypolls to the combine of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); it also suffered setbacks in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh by-elections. Regional political forces suddenly see a chance of re-emerging as important players in national politics. But this is not the first time they have sought to play a pivotal role in national politics.
In 1996, a group of regional parties and the Left formed a United Front (UF) government. That formation too came about with the explicit objective of keeping the BJP out of power. The Congress supported the coalition from outside. This time too, regional party leaders such as TMC’s Mamata Banerjee have indicated that the Congress should be ready to support such an initiative. The Congress, while expressing its openness to alliances, kept open the question of leadership of such a coalition in its political resolution at the party plenary. In a recent interview, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury indicated that the country may see a 1996 type situation in 2019. So what happened back then?
What happened: A hung parliament emerged from the 1996 elections in which the Congress government of PV Narasimha Rao was defeated. The BJP became the largest party in Parliament with 161 MPs and formed a government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee but this only lasted 13 days. Regional and Left leaders came together and offered the leadership to former prime minister VP Singh, who declined it. They turned to veteran West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu, but the CPM decided that it would not participate in the government and declined the offer, a decision Basu would later describe as a “historic blunder.” They then decided to prop up HD Deve Gowda as the Prime Minister. Deve Gowda’s party, Janata Dal, only had 46 MPs.
The Left Front and Congress lent their support, but the Deve Gowda government couldn’t last beyond a year after the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri decided to pull the plug and insisted on a change in the Prime Ministership. The UF constituents, after cancelling each other out, picked IK Gujral. Gujral was seen as a non-threatening figure since he did not have a mass base of his own. The government, however, did not complete its full term due to internal squabbling and because of differences with Congress. The Jain Commission Report on Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination hinted that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a UF component, had a role to play in it. The Congress insisted on the DMK’s removal from the coalition while Gujral decided to stick with the party. India went to the polls once again in 1998, and this time the BJP came to power.
Significance: The fragile nature of the Third Front became a powerful poll plank for the BJP. Its 1998 government lasted only 13 months, but in 1999, it returned to power and was able to form the first, stable National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that ran for a full five years. The BJP, which was earlier regarded as “untouchable” because of its strong Hindutva agenda, gained the confidence of allies. The episode also Institutionalised a more stable coalition dharma; both the NDA and the two Congress-led United Progressive Alliance governments were stable because regional parties too did not want frequent elections.
The UF experiment also showed the importance of a larger, national party being the anchor of a coalition. And it marked the consolidation and then the fragmentation of regional parties. The Janata Dal, which promised to be an alternative to the national parties, remained an illusion in Indian politics and its various constituents drifted apart. After the experiment, the Congress, too, returned under the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family with Sonia Gandhi taking charge. As 2019 approaches, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the Congress president, are in touch with many of the older leaders of the UF, and the inheritors of their political legacy, to keep the BJP out.