Past Continuous: What the 1998 Lok Sabha Elections Meant for Coalition Politics in India

A fortnightly column reflecting on chapters of India’s political past that are relevant today.

After Amethi became a pocket borough of the Gandhi-Nehru family, the 1998 Lok Sabha polls remain the only one when the Congress party lost the seat. This loss, 20 years ago, has greater connotation now because the defeat was at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), almost as a portent of eventual reversal of fortunes.

What made it worse was that the Congress candidate, a certain Captain Satish Sharma, was a family aide of the Gandhis and Sonia Gandhi was at the time yet to decisively step into the turbid and turbulent world of politics. His vanquisher also mattered: Sanjay Singh, a one-time Sanjay Gandhi acolyte who had crossed over to the BJP (and then returned when his career did not head upwards in the saffron party).

This Amethi ‘story’ in the 1998 parliamentary elections for the 12th Lok Sabha is, however, a side note. The real narrative of the election was the BJP’s ‘coming of age’ for it led to the formation of the first ‘legitimate’ government headed by the party. It erased the charge that the BJP was opportunistic in accepting President Shankar Dayal Sharma’s offer to form the government in 1996 because it ended up being the single-largest party, although there was no possibility of it securing additional support to gain majority in the Lok Sabha.

That this regime, the first ever National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, stayed in office for just 20 months following Atal Bihari Vajpayee theatrically losing a vote of confidence by a solitary vote, is another matter. The 1998 polls remain the watershed moment of BJP’s mainstreaming, which put an end to its ‘untouchable’ status.

Although the 1998 elections were the third in a series of eventually four elections necessitated because of the failure of non-Congress governments to last full terms, the turnout went up from 57.94% in 1996 to 61.97%. It was also the fourth time since 1989 when a parliamentary poll yielded a ‘hung’ house, indicating that the era of coalitions had truly set in.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996. Credit: Twitter

Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996. Credit: Twitter

Rise in voter turnout in 1998 indicated masses were accepting expansion of the democratic game and had come to terms with experimentation and coalition-making as alternatives to single-party governance. The robustness with which voters continued turning out in polls after 1998 indicates an acceptance of the coalition system. Despite the 2014 verdict, state elections held since point towards people’s continued openness with coalitions provided they appear credible.

To get back to the 1998 elections, it marked the first poll when BJP, along with its allies, ended up being the largest vote-gatherers. To comprehend this better, it is important to look at the 1996 results when BJP emerged as the largest party with 161 seats to 140 bagged by the Congress. Yet, BJP’s vote share was 20.3% as against Congress’s 28.8%.

In 1998, however, BJP’s tally crossed the 25% mark for the first time and although Congress still remained ahead, the difference between the two parties was miniscule – 0.3%. That this performance was despite substantial losses in states of relative strength – such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan – was all the more creditable. Moreover, BJP entered the fray with pre-election alliance partners in crucial states and alongside the votes these parties polled, the yet-to-get-a-name ‘front’ was the leader at more than 31%. The BJP’s move to replace L.K. Advani with Vajpayee as the party’s electoral mascot had paid off.

In 1991, Advani declared his party was the “government-in-waiting” and in 1998, his words did not sound exaggerated for the first time. Till that time, BJP was considered a ‘freak phenomenon’. Additionally, the polls marked the 1990s as the decade when all parties came to terms with the necessity to create political, regional and social alliances.

Past political prejudices and insistence of not doing business with any particular party was shed. On the flip side, this election also saw the emergence of political pragmatism after the BJP’s rise as one of the two primary polls on Indian polity. No cow was ‘unholy’ in Indian politics hereafter.

Significantly, the BJP’s rise was due to the apparently contradictory factors. Firstly, the ‘victory’ was owed greatly to the party’s splendid performance in Uttar Pradesh, home to the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation which witnessed the Babri Masjid’s demolition barely five years and four months prior to the polls.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid. Credit: PTI

Secondly, the surge in BJP’s vote was partly due to alliances which enabled it to break out of its core support areas in north, west and central India. In UP, the BJP won 57 seats with a significant 36.5% votes. These seats were largely a result of a polarising campaign built on the rubble of the disputed shrine. However, parties which partnered it in other states paid scant attention to this and instead justified that the Ram temple plank was formally not the party’s plank.

This elections also saw BJP shedding its caginess about parties that did not fall within its moral framework, for instance, several parties that joined its coalition had past animosity with Sangh parivar and a strong distaste for Hindutva. Naveen Patnaik’s father, after who the Biju Janata Dal is named, was staunchly anti-BJP while in the Janata Dal. This election also marked the first instance when the BJP began articulating that the contentious triad of issues would be put on the back burner till it had absolute majority of its own – no Ram temple, Uniform Civil Code and abrogation of Article 370 of constitution till we have majority.

Barring Karnataka, where the BJP ‘opened its account’ in 1991, the party had struggled to make a dent in the south and east. The BJP entered the electoral ring in 1998 boasting allies areas extending from Karnataka, through Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. This enabled it not just to make gains in terms of seats and votes but also to add new post-poll allies, the most startling of which – but significant in the wake of recent polls in the NE states – was the reach out by Gegong Apang of Arunachal Congress who extended support to the Vajpayee regime.

How allies transformed BJP’s fortunes is evident from its marginal numbers from these regions in 1996: seven seats and nine percent vote share. In contrast, in 1998, it won 28 seats in these states. Additionally, the vote swing towards the BJP alliance was 22%, compared to just 4% in others parts of country.

It is important to recall that the 1998 elections also took away Third Front’s centralism as after this election, governments have so far been headed by either BJP or Congress. This was largely the result of pileup of contradictions during the United Front (UF) rule under H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. But it was the Congress that played a direct role in pulling the rug from beneath Gujral’s feet on the Jain Commission report. Cosy relations of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with both BJP and Congress subsequent to 1997 highlights the incorrectness of this decision. But this gave space to BJP to secure allies and eventually draw those who were at one point UF members.

For all his weaknesses, Vajpayee was instrumental in making Indians accept coalitions. His conduct acted for long as a primer for premiers on how to run and manage coalitions. His success was noted immediately and contributed greatly to the return of the NDA to power in 1999. Vajpayee’s challenge was not to control belligerence of just his partners but even convey to affiliates within the Sangh parivar that coalitions had its limitations. Their inability to grasp this political reality eventually was a major reason for the NDA’s ouster in 2004, but that is a different episode.

Significantly, the BJP initiated the process which led to codifying a common minimum programme for the NDA. It was called the National Agenda of Governance (NAG) and while it disappointed BJP’s ardent for ambivalence on key issues, the document was a ‘please-all’ charter. Importantly, the NAG underlined continued espousal of a ‘pro-people’ populist government by giving a call for “berozgari hatao” harking back to Indira Gandhi’s clarion call in 1971.

There were two significant issues on which BJP had its way: “re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons” and “appoint a commission to review the Constitution of India in light of the experience of the past 50 years and to make suitable recommendations”. While India tested its second nuclear device within two months, the commission to review the constitution was embroiled in controversy later.

Vajpayee’s government was voted out not for programmatic reasons but for personality clashes. That story can await another occasion, but the 1998 poll’s historic role is evident from the fact that NDA remained in power for its entire term from 1999 although the BJP did not add to its previous tally and its vote share slipped to 23.8% in elections for the 13th Lok Sabha. The Vajpayee template was partially rejigged by the Congress for running the UPA government and still remains the template on which possibilities besides another BJP majority in 2019 are being explored.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.

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