The Janata Experiment
Our first coalition Central government was formed in 1977. Different parties were tied together by the thread of antipathy towards Indira Gandhi, and particularly the Emergency that she had imposed in 1975. Of the parties that had coalesced to form the Janata Party, only the Socialists and the Jan Sangh had not had a taste of power. All others were disgruntled men and women who had belonged to the Congress and had left that party at different times. Morarji Desai, a self-righteous, stubborn and antiquated Gandhian, did not possess the skills to steer the coalition through the choppy waters of politics. His unbending nature was the biggest hurdle to the success of that coalition, and it was no surprise that he became its first casualty too. There were other leaders with their own idiosyncrasies. Indira cleverly played one against the other, and finally succeeded in fanning the personal ambition of Charan Singh, who broke the coalition to become the prime minister with the support of the Congress. In his own words, he had achieved his lifes ambition.
Looking back, I cannot point to a single achievement of the Janata Party government. In terms of economic growth, those two-and-half years were an unmitigated disaster. During 1979-80, GDP growth registered a negative 5.2 per cent, the worst performance ever. When the first coalition experimented ended in 1979, the people heaved a sigh of relief, and happily voted Indira back to power.
No lessons were learned from the 1977-79 fiasco. In 1989, it was deja vu. VP Singh took the place of Morarji Desai and Chandra Shekhar played the spoilers role earlier donned by Charan Singh. Their governments too performed so badly that the people were happy to get rid of the two principal players and the parties that backed them. The two governments took the country to the edge of a precipice. The economy collapsed. So much for Singhs financial acumen and Shekhars socialist policies.
The third coalition experiment was the United Front government between 1996 and 1998. Mercifully, the men and women of that government did not have bloated egos. They were content to manage the country in keeping with their modest abilities. The economy achieved its highest growth rate post-liberalisation (and the second highest ever) 7.8 per cent during 1996-97. The UF government was not a spectacular success, nor was it a spectacular failure. It was brought down not by internal dissension (as in 1979 and 1990) but by the soaring and unmerited ambition of one man, Sitaram Kesri.
The Unique Mascot
The present coalition government, first formed in 1998 and renewed in 1999, is unique in many ways. The most distinguishing feature of this government is undoubtedly Atal Behari Vajpayee. He is the man for all seasons. I believe that he is essentially a good man and, in an old-fashioned way, he wishes to do something good for the country. I also believe that he is a consummate actor, a clever wordsmith and a hardcore swayamsewak. His ability to juggle the various roles some would say don the different masks is unparalleled. The measure of his success is the fact that he will complete five years as prime minister on March 18.
He presides over the most fractious coalition government ever to rule the country. Not a day passes without one party or the other vehemently criticising his government.
* On Ayodhya, the BJP has shed its inhibitions and now openly espouses the cause of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The Samata Party, JD-U and DMK are opposed to Hindutva and BJPs moves on Ayodhya.
* On disinvestment, DMK adopts a formal resolution against the current policy of the government, blissfully ignoring the fact that its minister, Murasoli Maran, presided over the industry ministry and was responsible for crafting the disinvestment policy. Other allies like Samata, Trinamool Congress and Shiv Sena also rail against disinvestment.
* As for the Pota, the first victim of the legislation was Vaiko, the leader of the MDMK which is part of the government. The MDMK, PMK and DMK are stoutly opposed to Pota, but Pota remains on the statute book and is freely used, and misused.
* On the Bill to reserve seats for women in Parliament and the state legislatures, even the BJP is divided. The Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and the JD-U are opposed to the Bill, even while the parliamentary affairs minister promises, on behalf of the government, to try and get it passed.
Yet the coalition continues and is apparently thriving. What is the glue that keeps these diverse parties together It cannot be power alone, because personal ambition is a strong antidote to sharing power. There is something more than power that is keeping the present coalition together, and I think it is the unabashed pursuit of money. Barring a few noble exceptions, virtually every minister is reported to be building a personal fortune. This will also explain why parties that are rebuffed repeatedly are loath to leave the government and why parties that are kept out are craving to get back in.
The longevity of this coalition seems to have paralysed the Opposition parties and has driven them to search for desperate solutions. An example is the temptation of some Congress leaders to opt for soft Hindutva. The BJP-led coalition indeed deserves to be challenged, but the way to do that is not soft Hindutva but a hardsell of bread and butter issues like jobs, rising price, water, roads, schools etc. In 1979, Indira challenged the government of the day on such bread and butter issues and was able to win power for the Congress. The Congress should take a leaf out of Indiras book.
(The author is former Union finance minister)