Past Continuous: Will Modi's 2014 Mandate Be Wasted, Like Rajiv Gandhi's 1984 One?

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

Rajiv Gandhi campaigning in Amethi in 1981. Credit: Twitter/Youth Congress

Rajiv Gandhi campaigning in Amethi in 1981. Credit: Twitter/Youth Congress

On securing a handsome mandate – bigger than any in recent past – in an election, political leaders have to first resolve whether that victory shall be her or his ‘peak’, or if the bar should be further raised. Determination to conquer even higher electoral peaks must necessarily be reflected in humility, as any streak of arrogance or hubris is a guarantee of stumbling sooner or later. In Indian history, Jawaharlal Nehru won three successive elections, not just because the opposition was yet to become a viable project and because his party was considered as the only legatee of the freedom struggle, but also for his politically inclusive qualities. True, he resorted to several questionable steps – like use of Article 356 of the Indian constitution to dismiss state some governments – but by and large, he was open to the voice of reason and often re-examined his prior posture.

Indira Gandhi was overtaken by delusion regarding her eternal stranglehold in the wake of the triumph in the first mid-term Lok Sabha polls in 1971 – and the successes in state elections in 1972 – along with the Indian military success against Pakistan. Within two years of the 1971 war, winds of unrest began blowing across several parts of India and by the middle of 1974, this had become a raging storm against her regime. What followed in the wake of the Navnirman agitation in Gujarat is well known, but the moot point is that her decline had truly set in by the time she imposed Emergency. Thereafter, it was just a matter of time – subject to her ending the draconian rule and allowing fair polls – before she would be ousted in an election. The 1977 election demonstrated that people do not always look for an alternative when they wish to vote out a leader, a fact demonstrated again in 2004, when the people defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance.

A similar error of judgement was made by Rajiv Gandhi, who still has to his credit, the biggest landslide in Indian electoral history. However, barely two years had elapsed before his regime began its slide downhill. The process which began with the eruption of the Fairfax controversy in December 1986, when it was alleged that V.P. Singh as finance minister, initiated investigations conducted by Michael Hershman (he resurfaced recently his television interviews when in India to attend a conference of private detectives and is likely to be inducted as witness by CBI in its reopening of the Bofors kickbacks allegations) gathered momentum after the Swedish radio alleged that bribes were paid to secure the contract for the Howitzer.

Rajiv Gandhi Indira Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi with Indira Gandhi. Credit: inc.in

Events in 1987 were particularly significant and determined the nature of Indian politics for years to come, but developments in the fall of that year, starting October, were of special significance. The story of that wasted mandate, which began exactly three decades ago, has great significance today as it has numerous similarities to recent developments. Like in 1984, the Lok Saba elections in 2014 also yielded a mandate which was astounding when compared with verdicts in the immediate past. But while it took two and half years before Rajiv Gandhi’s car began sputtering, it has taken one year longer before the Modi engine has begun showing signs of trouble.

The future of this regime will be greatly determined by events over the next couple of months, but strong parallels exist between the political backdrop in 1987 and the current situation, and this should be cause for worry for supporters of this regime. The most significant similarity then and now, is that the supposition in 1987 that there was no alternative to Rajiv Gandhi existed. That was in sharp contrast to the 1984 election when Rajiv Gandhi was the natural choice. Similarly, if Modi had been voted in 2014 because he seen as ‘The Alternative’,  the renewal of his mandate – whether in Gujarat and others states that go to the polls over the next two years – or in the 2019 polls, would depend solely on the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. Gandhi was voted out in 1989 because an alliance was cobbled up from nowhere in circumstances still contentious. Similarly, the dramatic turn of political events in Gujarat demonstrates that the future is not something that can be spoken about with certainty.

It is worthwhile recalling apologists for Gandhi in 1987 writing off V.P. Singh when he resigned from the cabinet on April 11, declaring that he “was clearly an isolated and beaten man”, someone who earned the “reputation of a man who runs away from battle.” V.P. Singh’s departure was then interpreted by the ‘official camp’ and conveyed to sympathetic journalists that “Rajiv may have emerged stronger within the party”. But such assertions came to a naught just two months later when the Congress was handed an abject electoral humiliation barely two months later in Haryana. The party won just five seats out of 90, and an implausible alliance between the Devi Lal led faction of Lok Dal and the BJP swept the polls. More incredulously, the Lok Dal did not align with only the BJP but also allocated one seat each to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), thereby settling up an veiled electoral partnership between the BJP on the one hand and two communist parties on the other.

Post polls, despite Devi Lal being in a position to form the government on his own, he requested the BJP to join his government and Sushma Swaraj became the first ever BJP minister in any state. Her induction – this must be mentioned for record – almost coincided with the decision of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to depute Narendra Modi to the BJP, a decision that heralded the revival of the practise of the Jana Sangh of positioning pracharaks in the political party. Despite the electrifying nature of the Haryana verdict, its impact was local or regional and to convert this into a national sentiment there was need for a leader with a pan-Indian identity to anchor the nascent opposition to Congress. It was also imperative that this person was not tainted with the failure of the Janata Party government and seen as opportunists by people. This ruled out opposition stalwarts like Devi Lal, Chandrasekhar and H.N. Bahuguna from leading the anti-Rajiv bandwagon. This is when V.P.Singh developed confidence and on October 2, 1987, formed the Jan Morcha with a handful of colleagues who had either left the Congress along with him or had been evicted from the party earlier.

The significance of the formation of Jan Morcha was that it demonstrated that regardless of an emphatic mandate and overwhelming parliamentary support, fortified by the Anti-Defection law enacted in 1985, there was still space for opposition to rally people’s sentiment against a regime. Events between 1987 and 1989 when the Congress was voted out in the polls for the ninth Lok Sabha demonstrated that one failed attempt to put together an anti-Congress coalition did not necessarily foreclose the possibility of another such conglomerate being cobbled up. Moreover, as the mood of the people changed, opposition parties cast aside their prejudices against each other and joined hands despite severe ideological differences. To put it differently, if the communist parties could forge an indirect alliance with the BJP to ensure that the anti-Congress vote did not get divided in 1989, noting prevents different anti-BJP parties from cobbling together a loose coalition. Significantly while opposition to Congress was more programmatic and personality driven, differences of the non-BJP parties to it are fundamentally ideological.

VP Singh

V.P. Singh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While the Jan Morcha was formed in October 1987, efforts continued to put together a Janata Party like behemoth. Eventually a year later, on October 11 1988, (chosen intentionally for this day is Jayaprakash Narayan’s birth anniversary) the Janata Dal was formed with the merger of various groups of the Lok Dal, Congress (S) and Jan Morcha. The BJP which was invited to join the new rump, chose to retain its “distinct identity” but aligned with the newly formed party to defeat the Congress.

A few months prior to the formation of the Janata Dal, V.P. Singh was elected to Lok Sabha in a tumultuous bypoll from Allahabad, the seat vacated by Amitabh Bachchan. V.P. Singh was the joint opposition candidate and he defeated Sunil Shastri, the son of India’s second prime minister. The margin of more than 1.10 lakh votes would have been greater had not Kanshi Ram entered the fray and cut away a significant number of anti-Congress votes. It is worth recalling that Bachchan quit his parliamentary seat because he was stung by aspersions cast on him in the wake of the Bofors scandal. At that time however, few expected the bypoll to catalyse such a major turnaround in the political narrative. The anti-Congress coalition that comprised forces on the Right and on the Left came together because of their inherent anti-Congressism and also because both concluded that a tactical handshake was historically imperative.

For the past several months the CPI(M) has witnessed a debate over the posture it must adopt towards the Congress in its strategy to pose a credible opposition to the BJP. The matter has now been deferred for the party Congress due in April next year, but the party cannot be guided by the necessities of its Kerala unit and the diktats of certain influential leaders. From a time barely seven months ago, when Omar Abdullah made the politically naive statement that opposition parties should focus on 2024 as 2019 was a settled affair, the situation has altered dramatically. While strategising between now and the next polls, it would be worthwhile for political leaders to revisit the period when Rajiv Gandhi’s trouble began in early 1987, till his eventual defeat which led to V.P. Singh becoming prime minister. Re-examining this period of Indian political history would also be useful for trackers of Indian politics.

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.