Leading the debate

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Thirty epochal years. Over this period, the Indian polity witnessed disruption and creation, opened up new streams of thinking and practice, went through agitations and upheavals, and recorded the emergence and rise of political personalities of varying character and stature. Politics shaped socio-economic initiatives that caused paradigm shifts in society, some with positive impact and some with negative, debilitating effects. Frontline’s political coverage over these 30 years kept up with all this, providing a close and deep look at the events and trends as they unfolded, bringing out unknown facets of happenings, themes and personalities through incisive and objective analysis.

Frontline was launched against the background of widespread political tumult, which came to a head with a major act of political extremism: the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own security guards belonging to the Sikh community. It was a year of political upsets, and its most striking feature was the scourge of Khalistan militancy and the reactions to it, which led to turbulence in different parts of the country, particularly in north India. India witnessed one more political assassination seven years later, in 1991, when Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi, who rode a sympathy wave in 1984 and led the Congress to the highest tally in the electoral history of India, was assassinated by Liberation Tiges of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militants from Sri Lanka.


The Congress won a massive 404 out of 533 seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. For the next 30 years, no party got a majority on its own and India went through one coalition government after another. The leadership of the coalitions also rotated between the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and non-Congress, non-BJP secular parties such as the Janata Dal. The 2014 elections changed this pattern when the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, won 282 out of 543 seats and brought about a return to single-party majority government. The governments that were formed during these three decades have more often than not proved wrong the platitude that political stability is the most important factor that brings good governance to people. Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, which had a massive mandate, was far from wholesome, especially in terms of controlling corruption and the rise of communal forces. Ultimately, it was the failure on these counts that led to the defeat of his government in the 1989 election and the beginning of serial coalition governments at the Centre.

These coalition governments underscored a variety of emerging and unique political factors. Primarily, these governments and the elections that led to them showed the collapse of the single-party domination of the Congress, which had been the dominant factor of Indian polity after Independence. This domination was questioned in limited ways between 1967 and 1984, through a number of State Assembly elections and the 1977 Lok Sabha election. However, elections since 1989 cemented this factor in unambiguous terms.

At the policy level, these governments signified the disintegration of the Congress’ policy framework as well as the absence of a clear alternative. The limitations in this regard were conspicuous in the first of these governments, the Vishwanath Pratap Singh-led National Front (N.F.) government (1989-90), which was supported by both the Left parties and the right-wing BJP. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the BJP sought to advance aggressive Hindutva as a political and ideological alternative. However, by the mid-1990s, the saffron party was forced to realise that it would not be able to acquire political domination solely on the strength of this ideology.

Consequently, the BJP toned down its core Hindutva slogans and projected the moderate image of Atal Behari Vajpayee. It helped the party to hold the reins of power as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) during the 1998-2004 period. The self-professed socialist-oriented Janata Dals and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) were also in power during the 1996-98 period in association with the Congress. However, they too could not utilise this period in power to build themselves up as credible political alternatives.

The Congress led two United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments in the 2004-14 period. The first (2004-09) was dependent on the support of the Left parties for survival. This arrangement resulted in the advancement of several measures and pieces of legislation, including the rural employment guarantee scheme, the Forest Rights Act and the Right to Information Act. However, in its second stint, the UPA was not dependent on the Left parties and pursued neoliberal policies vigorously.

A key aspect of all the governments that ruled India in the last 30 years was the pursuit of economic liberalisation policies with varying degrees of emphasis and intensity. Though the roots of these policies can be traced to the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, they were formalised more concretely during the 1991-96 P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress regime. Despite its political opposition to the Congress, the BJP has been an ardent votary of this policy, both during the Vajpayee regime and in the current Modi regime. In fact, with the majority it enjoys in Parliament now, the BJP’s pursuit of this agenda has been aggressive. A large number of the so-called socialist-oriented regional parties who were part of the government during these years have also been votaries of these policies. The Left parties have consistently opposed the liberalisation policies, but, barring the 2004-09 period, they have not been able to exercise any major influence on the Union government.

Thus, Indian polity has not been able to throw up a policy and ideologically oriented alternative to the mainstream parties. The increasing weakening of the Left parties, as reflected in the last two general elections, raises grave questions about the possibility of this type of a concrete alternative emerging. Even so, India witnessed several “paradigm-shift” initiatives that brought about substantive societal changes in the last three decades. Despite fiascos on several fronts, the Rajiv Gandhi government was instrumental in taking resolute steps to bring in information technology to India and this is considered a paradigm shift that empowered millions of people. The Vishwanath Pratap Singh-led N.F. government took concrete steps to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations and give reservation to Other Backward Caste (OBC) communities in government jobs. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, that was passed during the 2004-09 UPA government, primarily on the insistence of the Left parties, has helped enhance transparency in governance.

The decision to implement the Mandal Commission report brought in a different kind of empowerment in terms of political praxis. It gave greater strength to identity politics, pursued by parties following Dalit and OBC assertive politics. The emergence of Mayawati as India’s first Dalit Chief Minister in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, and the sustained reign of leaders hailing from backward castes in different parts of India are results of the long-term effect V.P. Singh’s decision has had on the polity. However, the failure to implement comprehensive land reforms, one of the first promises of the rulers of Independent India, which would have created a paradigm shift of immense proportions, presents a stark picture of vested interests having held sway over the system.

Many leaders left their imprint on the national polity in these three decades. The BJP’s first Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Communist Party of India (Marxist ) leader Jyoti Basu who was Chief Minister of West Bengal for an unbroken 23-year-period, film star-turned-politicians like M.G. Ramachandran and N.T. Rama Rao, all contributed in their own ways.

Though the homebred Khalistani militancy which was a huge political factor 30 years ago has fizzled out over time, other forms of extremist politics, ranging from Islamist militancy in Kashmir to Maoist Left extremism to Hindu communal militancy, continue to hold sway in different regions of the country and among different sections of society. The return of a single-party-majority government after 30 years in 2014 raises pertinent questions, especially given the primacy that Hindutva-oriented militant organisations are getting now in the political, social and cultural space. It is with this concern that Frontline’s close observation of politics moves onward to the fourth decade.

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