The complicated post-poll situation in Karnataka has dredged up memories of the political turbulence that followed the 1996 general election outcome. Both contexts are marked by several similarities, bringing into focus once again significant political and strategic issues. For instance, should post-poll alliances be given the same primacy as a pre-poll alliance? Or should the party with the largest number of seats be privileged by constitutional heads – be it state governor or president – even though it falls short of the requisite numbers to form government?
Just as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged the single largest party in the Karnataka assembly, in the 1996 general elections too it had won the largest number of seats – 161 in a 543-member Lok Sabha. The Congress was second with 140.
Throwing up a fractured mandate, the 1996 general elections, spurred the political class into a flurry of post-poll activity. Shankar Dayal Sharma, who was president at the time, invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee – the leader of the BJP – to form the government. The new prime minister, sworn into office on May 15, was given two weeks to prove his party’s majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha. Hectic activities took place on both sides of the ideological divide: on the one hand, the BJP tried to pick up allies to notch up its numbers in Lok Sabha, on the other hand, a range of political parties, national and regional, tried to keep the BJP out of power at the centre.
At the centre of the efforts mounted by anti-BJP parties was Harkishen Singh Surjeet, then general secretary of the Communist Party of India –Marxist(CPI-M). It was mainly due to Surjeet’s endeavours that the BJP failed to win a vote of confidence in Lok Sabha, leading to the exit of the 13-day Vajpayee government. What unravelled next was frenetic political negotiations to hammer out a third front. The aim of this front was mainly to keep the ideologically divisive BJP out of power.
The 1996 elections, coming on the back of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the opening up of the economy by then Congress prime minister Narasimha Rao, had damaged the Congress’s reputation. Suffering heavy losses in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the party fared badly in the polls. The ball was squarely placed in the court of the conglomerate popularly known as the third front – which, historically, is supposed to be a political and economic alternative to both the Congress and BJP.
Declining to form the government, the Congress vouched outside support to a third-front led government. The United Front, a succession to the earlier National Front, comprised a motley group of diverse political parties, and was born after the 1996 general election results came. Like the impromptu partnership between the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) today, the 13-member United Front in 1996 shared no common economic or social agenda. What bound them together, however, was a single point political project – to keep the BJP out of power. The same reason that appears to have brought Congress and JD(S) together now.
The United Front included constituents like the Janata Dal, Samajwadi Party, DMK, Telugu Desam Party, Ahom Gana Parishad (AGP), All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), the four Left Parties, Tamil Maanila Congress, National Conference and the Mahrashtrawadi Gomantak Party. The front was widely representative of the assertive regional forces, encompassing parties through the length and breadth of the country.
After the formation of the front, it launched into a search for a prime ministerial candidate to lead them. Bengal’s CPI-M chief minister at the time, Jyoti Basu, who had ruled the state uninterruptedly for more than a decade, became the United Front’s consensus candidate. The Congress readily agreed to support his candidature, who would have become India’s first Communist prime minister but for his party’s objection to the proposal. After the CPI-M, at two successive central committee meetings, refused to endorse Basu’s candidacy, H.D. Deve Gowda was picked for the position.
The formation and the early fall of the United Front government had brought to the fore the need for a pre-poll understanding, and the importance of putting up a joint campaign which would spell out to the electorate the political, economic and social agenda of the front. The United Front did put together a common minimum programme, a manifesto of sorts – for the political and economic aspirations the third front stood for.
No doubt, a joint electoral campaign is a transparent process – a strategy that should ideally be adopted in fighting elections. However, in the case of the present Karnataka impasse, the question which begs an answer is that the BJP, which is trying to woo the Janata Dal (Secular), had no prior poll understanding with the party either. So the accusation that the Congress did not have a pre-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), sticks to the BJP as well. Especially when despite being the single largest party, the BJP lacks the numbers to form government, unless the Janata Dal (Secular) bails it out of the crisis.