December 22, 1989

Triumph and trial

Print edition : February 06, 2015

New Delhi, December 1, 1989: Telugu Desam Party leader N.T. Rama Rao congratulates V.P. Singh on his unanimous election as the leader of the National Front Parliamentary Party. Those who look on are (from left) Shatrughan Sinha, Devi Lal and M. Karunanidhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

IT was incredible, it was historic. A brief ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan on December 2 ushered in a new, non-Congress era, as National Front leader Vishwanath Pratap Singh was sworn in Prime Minister and Devi Lal, that doyen of Haryana leaders who recently burst on the national scene, Deputy Prime Minister. A visual manifestation of the great verdict of the Lok Sabha elections—the rejection of the Congress even if no other party got a clear mandate.

It was a change, with a capital C. For the second time in the four decades (the Charan Singh government that was in office for five months has to be counted out as a freak development) after Independence, the top rung of the Congress found itself in the non-government seats. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his colleagues of the old government occupied the area reserved for the opposition.

That V.P. Singh will be sworn in became known the preceding day—after his election as leader of the Janata Dal, as also of the National Front, and the assurances of support to him by the BJP and the Left parties. But Devi Lal’s simultaneous induction in the Number 2 position was a surprise. This, however, was a logical follow-up of the behind-the-scenes confabulations on December 1. What happened that day at the meeting of the Janata Dal Parliamentary Party was the culmination of what had gone on away from the public gaze. V.P. Singh, as was known, proposed Devi Lal’s name for the post of leader, and another leading party figure, Chandra Shekhar, seconded it, but the Haryana leader declined to take up the responsibility and, instead, suggested V.P. Singh for the top position. Despite some unseemly spectacles at the Janata Dal level, the transition was without jerks—in the constitutional sphere.

Attention had been drawn to the crucial role of President R. Venkataraman and his predicament in the case of claims to power by rival aspirants. In the event, the situation simplified itself. The Congress chose—wisely so—not to try to stay in office. This was no renunciatory gesture—Rajiv Gandhi was only being realistic, and so were most of the party seniors, though some opposed a voluntary exit from power. Friendless as it was, the Congress, even if installed in power, would have been voted out in the very first trial of strength in the Lok Sabha. The story would have been different had the Congress managed a tally of, say, 240 and its allies another 15 in the 525-strong House. Party managers, in that eventuality, would certainly have worked hard to win over independents and unattached members and, at the same time, seen to it that the Congress was the first to be invited to form the new government.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan statement, issued on December 1 evening after the President gave V.P. Singh the “go ahead” signal, was revealing. “Since the Congress (I), elected to the ninth Lok Sabha with the largest membership,” it said, “has opted not to stake its claim for forming the government, the President invited Mr V.P. Singh, leader of the second largest party/group, namely, the Janata Dal/National Front to form the government and take a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha within 30 days of his assuming office.” The President, it was clear, would have called Rajiv Gandhi, re-elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, had the Congress shown interest. Venkataraman, obviously, does not accept the doctrine enunciated by several constitutional authorities that a ruling party, on losing majority in the election, is not qualified for a bid for office, even if it emerges as the largest single group and that precedence needs be given to the second largest party.

The stipulation that the new government test its strength within 30 days is another new factor. It has never happened in the past in a post-election situation. But, never since the Constitution came into force some four decades ago has the line-up in the Lok Sabha been so unclear. What happened in 1979 was a midterm affair, as the collapse of the Janata Party and the resignation of Prime Minister Morarji Desai created a confused situation. N. Sanjiva Reddy, President of the day, while announcing his controversial decision to call Charan Singh, leader of a splinter Janata group, to form the government, put the confidence vote condition. This was what Sanjiva Reddy wrote to Charan Singh on July 26 that year: “I trust that, in accordance with the highest democratic traditions and in the interest of establishing healthy conventions, you would seek a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha at the earliest possible opportunity, say, by the third week of August 1979.”

That Charan Singh developed cold feet and decided not to face the Lok Sabha, and thus paved the way for the dissolution of the Lok Sabha was a different matter. The new government now has no such problem. As a matter of fact, the 30-day time-limit was fixed after the President’s consultations with V.P. Singh.

What happened at the closed-door meeting at Haryana Bhavan, the hub of Devi Lal’s activities, and Orissa Bhavan, the venue of Orissa stalwart Biju Patnaik’s sessions, prior to V.P. Singh’s unanimous election as leader of the Janata Dal Parliamentary Party is by now well known. It is a story of secret strategies to find a way out of the clash of ambitions and to accommodate conflicting egos. The role of two journalists, known for their anxiety to ensure the smooth working of the alternative to the Congress, was crucial, though it is yet to be appropriately recorded.

From among the politicians, the Janata Dal’s master tactician, Arun Nehru, and Biju Patnaik came out with one idea after another. Devi Lal, who was first reconciled to V.P. Singh’s choice, liked the idea when his name was suggested by some in the party. His son, Om Prakash Chautala, would not let the father buckle under persuasive pressure. The two-proposal plan that was finally put into practice satisfied both V.P. Singh and Devi Lal but annoyed Chandra Shekhar, who too was not reconciled to V.P. Singh’s emergence at the top. He was told only of a part of the plan, not of the other part—that Devi Lal would withdraw in favour of V.P. Singh—and felt deceived when the entire strategy unfolded itself at the party meeting. His cryptic remark, that he would not oppose V.P. Singh’s election but had reservations, spoke eloquently of his mood. His future attitude will have a close bearing on the working of the new experiment.

The government of the National Front, by itself in a minority in the Lok Sabha, has an in-built element of instability. It is backed “from outside” by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left, otherwise allergic to each other. None of them would like the other to influence the government’s policies: none of them will continue its support if the other joins the government. The government could, conceivably, be subjected to conflicting pressures. What, however, will sustain it is the joint stakes in ensuring against the return of the Congress.

The BJP and the Left parties extended “unconditional” support to the government but both of them have their own ideas of what it means. BJP president L.K. Advani spelt out his party’s stand in a letter to the National Front leaders (in reply to their communication seeking its support). While agreeing that the people had given a clear verdict against the Rajiv Gandhi government, he maintained that there had been no positive verdict in favour of any one party or in favour of the five-party National Front.

The BJP, according to him, would not make its support conditional to the removal of its reservations to the Front’s programmes. Nonetheless, he dwelt at length on the two “principal reservations”.

“1. The National Front and the BJP fought these elections on two separate manifestoes, not on a common manifesto. A manifesto is a party’s solemn commitment to the people. Our two manifestoes have several common features, such as grant of autonomy to Akashvani and Doordarshan, enactment of a Right to Information Act, incorporating (the) right to work as a fundamental right in the Constitution, elimination of corruption by the creation of an institutional watchdog like the Lok Pal, taking steps to give debt relief and ensure remunerative prices to the farmer, etc. But there are aspects on which the two manifestoes differ. We would like the National Front government to confine its governmental programme to issues on which we agree;

“2. The main constituent of the National Front is the Janata Dal. Ever since its launching, the Janata Dal leadership, by its utterances and actions, has been consciously trying to convey to the people an impression that it regards the BJP as a communal party and that it would rather sit in the opposition than ever share power with it. The Janata Dal’s public postures have thwarted the building up of any abiding relationship of trust and friendship between our parties. If it is acknowledged by the Janata Dal that though the Janata Dal and the BJP differ on issues like Article 370, uniform civil code, human rights commission, Ram Janmabhoomi, etc., the Janata Dal does not regard the BJP as communal, that would go a long way in removing misgivings in our rank and file.”

The two communist parties too made clear their ideas either in their notes to the Front or through public statements. CPI general secretary C. Rajeshwara Rao stressed that their support to the Front was based on “secular and democratic policies”. The formation of a non-Congress government, for which the Front sought its support, was not to include representatives of “communal parties like the BJP, Muslim League, etc.” Leaders of the CPI(M) were equally candid in their talks with the Front.

The Congress, as already noted, decided not to make a bid for power and reconciled itself to a National Front government. The stand became known when its tally hovered just above 190. It was formally announced by the outgoing Prime Minister in his farewell message to the nation on November 29 when he assured the new government “constructive cooperation, accepting “in all humility” the verdict of the people. While in the opposition, the Congress proposes to set its organisational house in order.

The new ruling elite will need skill—and good luck. That is because the challenges it faces are daunting—the ruling party’s numerical inferiority, the Janata Dal’s internal contradictions such as the emergence of Devi Lal, now Deputy Prime Minister, as a parallel centre of power, and Chandra Shekhar’s sullenness.

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