Will Opposition Unity in 2019 Withstand the Fragilities of Past Coalitions?

If the hunger for power stimulated the players in 1967, the desire for self-preservation is certainly strong enough to guide the unity of opposition forces today.

This is the second article in a two-part series on coalition politics in India. Read part one here.

Ram Manohar Lohia’s project of uniting all anti-Congress forces led to the February 1965 split in the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). A section of Praja Socialist Party (PSP) leaders opposed the inclusion of the communists as well as the Jan Sangh in the alliance. At a symposium on the Political Alternatives in India, held on the eve of the January-February 1967 general elections, N.G. Goray of the PSP held that his party stood for “a distinctive socialist image un-blurred by opportunistic alliances with anti-national [pointing to the CPI (M)] and anti-socialist [he meant the Swatantra and the Jan Sangh] forces.”

This was a repudiation of Lohia’s project to consolidate anti-Congress opposition votes ahead of the general elections in 1967. It must be stressed that those who threw a spanner in Lohia’s works were his own comrades from the Congress Socialist Party tradition.

Indeed, there was no such unity, as Lohia desired, in the general elections of 1967. Lohia himself fought from Farukhabad (in Uttar Pradesh) and won by a slender margin this time. Jan Sangh, which supported him in the 1963 by-election, fielded a candidate against Lohia in 1967. The socialists, despite being a force in Bihar fared rather badly in the Lok Sabha. The largest party among the opposition in the fourth Lok Sabha was the Swatantra Party with 44 MPs. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh had 35 MPs, DMK, restricted to Tamil Nadu, had 24, a number it shared with the CPI, the Samyukta Socialist Party had only 23 legislators. The CPI(M) secured only 19 seats and the Praja Socialist Party still less – 13.

Lohia, however, could redeem himself as the opposition rallied together in the states; The unity project first succeeded in Haryana and then in Uttar Pradesh. Gaya Ram, one of the elected MLAs in Haryana, strayed from the party while Charan Singh, elected in the UP assembly as a Congress candidate in February 1967, ended up heading the Samyukta Vidayak Dal (SVD) government in April that year. The form and the content of this anti-Congressism can be explained with one fact: all those who led the SVD  governments in the three states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana – were former Congress leaders who had nothing to do with the Socialist Party till then.

Also read: With a Grand Alliance in the Making, Remembering Another From Decades Before

Lohia’s plan

The SVD was a post-poll coalition in states – put together with the singular objective to come to power. Lohia certainly gave it the gloss it needed. Just a couple of months after the general elections of 1967, India had to elect its president. At a casual gathering of his fellow socialists and some Swatantra MPs in the central hall of Parliament, Lohia proposed a one line statement to Karni Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner having just been elected MP as Independent candidate. The statement proposed said: “If the present government falls, we [the undersigned] are prepared to form a government.”

The list of elected legislator 1967, included many Maharajas/princes, belonging to various parties. The list is illustrative of the state of the democratic polity of that time. The list included: Karan Singh from Jammu and Kashmir, Lalit Sen from Himachal Pradesh, Mahida from Chota Udaipur, Manavendra Shah of Tehri-Garhwal, Maharaja Manikya of Tripura, Mohinder Kaur of Patiala, Padmavati of Pratapgarh, Rajani Devi of Sarangarh (and all of them from the Congress party); P.K.Deo of Kalahandi, K.P. Singhdeo, the ‘Prince’ of Denkanal, R.R. Singhdeo of Patna, Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Zulfiquar Ali Miki of Rampur, Maharaja of Dhragandhra (all from the Swatantra Party); Brilal Singh of Kota, Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior, Vijayamala, the Maharani of Kolhapur, Maharaja Brijendra Singh of Bharatpur, Bhanuprakash Singh of Narsingharh, Karni Singh of Bikaner (all as Independents).

Maharaja Karni Singh took Lohia’s naïve proposal seriously and went about seeking signatures from fellow MPs.

With 283 out of the 516 MPs in the fourth Lok Sabha, the Congress party government, headed then by Indira Gandhi, enjoyed ample support in the house. However, there was the off chance that Congress party’s nominee, Zakir Hussain, may lose the Presidential election scheduled for May 8, 1967. There were rumblings among large numbers of non-Congress MLAs across states and resentment against Indira’s leadership from within the Congress Parliamentary Party.

Lohia’s plan was that, in case the ‘united’ candidate against Hussain won the post of President, Indira Gandhi could be forced, on moral grounds, to quit. His strategy  was to make such a plan appear possible and thereby trigger an exodus from the Congress by guaranteeing them offices in the non-Congress government that was bound to assume office. K. Subba Rao, former judge of the Supreme Court, had already entered the fray as the opposition’s nominee against Zakir Hussain.

Lohia even floated Minoo Masani, the leader of the Swatantra Parliamentary Party as the natural choice that Subba Rao will have to call in the event he lost. The communists, the PSP socialists and even C. Rajagopalachari, the mind behind the formation of the Swatantra Party, distanced themselves from Lohia’s grand idea. Karni Singh, meanwhile, found himself unable to gather mass with his signature campaign on the one-line-resolution.

Lohia did not live long after the May 1967 fiasco (when Zakir Hussain won with comfort and Subba Rao polled a lesser proportion of votes than the combined strength of all those against the Congress party). The Congress party split in December 1969. Morarji Desai and others, left the Congress to forge the ‘Grand Alliance’ for the general elections in 1971. Though the alliance came a cropper, Desai ended up becoming India’s Prime Minister in March 1977. And just as the socialists ended up making former Congressmen chief ministers in Uttar Pradesh Haryana and Bihar, the socialists, George Fernandes and Madhu Dandavate joined the cabinet headed by former Congressman, Morarji Desai.

Also read: Mega Opposition Rally in Delhi: Who Said What?

India in 2019 is far different from what it was in 1967

Like the way things unravelled a decade ago, the unity of anti-Congress forces in the 1970s too was short-lived. This time Lohia’s legatee, Madhu Limaye aided Charan Singh’s games against Morarjibhai by raising the dispute over dual membership. Limaye did to Lohia what the PSP leaders and N.G. Goray did to him in 1967. The developments paved the way for a nuanced non-Congressism that unravelled in 1996. The emergence of parties such as the Telugu Desam Party and the Asom Gana Parishad along with the DMK led to a new incarnation of the SVD – the United Front.

While the glue bringing together the present day opposition forces is similar to that which brought disparate forces in the SVDs in 1967 and then others in the United Front in 1996, contemporary India – the India of 2019 – is far too different from what it was in 1967.

This substantial change– in the half century between 1967 and the present – ought to be registered in any attempt to understand the pre-poll arrangements being made ahead of the general elections in 2019. There is very little scope for a front of parties that are neither with the Congress nor with the BJP to establish themselves as credible. Meanwhile, anti-Congressism (or non-Congressism as Madhu Limaye would insist) was merely a title given post-facto to Lohia’s hazy project (if one decides to be charitable) – one that did not take shape at all.

If the hunger for power stimulated the players in 1967, the desire for self-preservation is certainly strong enough to guide the unity of the opposition forces currently.

V. Krishna Ananth is a professor of history at Sikkim University and the author of India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics.