How Dual Membership Brought Down India’s First Non-Congress Coalition

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    When farmer leader Choudhary Charan Singh broke away from the Janata Party in 1979 to form the Janata Secular, it brought about the fall of the first non-Congress government at the Centre led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. India’s first experiment at coalition-building to challenge the Congress under Indira Gandhi had met an ignominious end. And the reason issue the coalition broke down was dual membership – a euphemism for the refusal by members of the erstwhile Jana Sangh, which had merged into the Janata Party – to sever allegiance to their parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

    It took less than three years for the euphoria generated by the defeat of Indira (and her son Sanjay) in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections to give way to power-hungry politicians, personal ambitions and, of course, irreconcilable ideological contradictions.

    Disillusion set in as hopes of a fresh beginning after the doosri azaadi (second independence) and Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) dream of Parivartan and ‘Total Revolution’ lay in tatters.

    Indira was brought back to power by the people of India, who seemed to prefer her ‘corrupt misrule’ to the complete non-governance of the Janata Party.

    Although everyone blamed everyone else including JP for the debacle, probably a good part of the fault lay in India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. The experience of other democracies has shown that the system works well only when there are two major contending parties or coalitions. In a multiparty system like in India, it tends to distort the popular will, working in favour of the dominant party as Opposition votes get split.

    It was JP, a prominent socialist and Gandhian, who provided the crucial spark that helped stitch together disparate opposition parties into the Janata experiment in 1977. Dissatisfaction with the government, particularly among the new generation, was high as India’s story of progress had not lived up to expectations.

    Opposition parties naturally sensed an opportunity to displace the Congress. But in the absence of unity, it was impossible to achieve. It was JP who stepped in to attempt this, lending his considerable prestige to the enterprise of ousting the “corrupt and authoritarian” Congress party from power.

    As an heir to the Mahatma’s heritage, JP had become a kind of conscience-keeper of the nation. He had renounced political office to plunge into social reconstruction in 1954 alongside another Gandhian, Vinoba Bhave.

    The two became leading lights of a voluntary organization called Sarva Seva Sangh (Service to All), which was established being in 1949 and was committed to implementing Mahatma Gandhi’s ideal of Sarvodaya (upliftment of all).

    Initially, JP fell in behind Vinoba Bhave, who had launched ‘Bhoodan’, a voluntary land donation and redistribution programme in rural India to tackle the issue of landlessness. But the campaign floundered in the late ’60s, coinciding with the first Opposition efforts at alliance-building, which resulted in the Sanyukt Vidhayak Dal governments in some states.

    Uniting The Opposition

    As Sarvodaya did not make much headway, JP gradually decided to turn to political action in the form of efforts to unite the Opposition. He was, however, not keen to get into party politics, and he made this clear when he turned down an invitation by a veteran Opposition leader Biju Patnaik of Odisha to take the lead in uniting the opposition against Indira Gandhi. Offering his moral support was the most he was willing to do, since he was sceptical about the capacity for unity among Opposition parties.

    The ‘X’ factor in these unity efforts was, of course the presence in it of the Jana Sangh, the political wing of the RSS, with whose communal approach many Opposition parties themselves were uncomfortable.

    Earlier, the RSS had shunned the limelight. But under its new chief Balasaheb Deoras, who took over in 1973, it changed course and wanted to expand its political presence through the Jana Sangh. But it was handicapped by its pariah status acquired after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

    Its political arm, the Jana Sangh, therefore began to look for ways to gain greater political legitimacy and in JP it discovered an opportunity. JP was able to overcome some of his initial reservations and supported the students’ movement in Bihar led by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Socialists in 1974, on the pattern of the Navnirman Movement in Gujarat.

    He lent his support to the Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti (CSS) and even coined the catchphrase ‘Total Revolution’ to describe his crusade against corruption and misrule of the Congress. The movement by now had even acquired the epithet ‘JP movement’. As the movement gradually spread all over the country and massive rallies were organised, JP became more and more dependent on the Jana Sangh-RSS network.

    JP, though, was no stranger to working with the RSS, having partnered with its senior leader Nanaji Deshmukh during the Bhoodan programme as far back as 1953. JP had time and again made it clear that he would have no truck with those who “are given to the politics of religion….” But he was convinced that he could win over the RSS youth towards the Gandhian path. Besides, he could no longer depend on his Sarvodaya base, which had weakened.

    Pulls and Pushes

    His efforts to unite the Opposition into a single party was by no means a smooth affair, and it came up against resistance from not only the Jana Sangh, which was reluctant to give up its identity, but also from Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) and some Socialists who feared the dominance of the former in a united opposition party because of their organisational strength. The unity efforts were centred on five Opposition parties – the Jana Sangh, Congress (O), Socialists, the Akali Dal and the BLD. Even though the JP movement gathered steam, Opposition unity efforts lagged as many of the leaders dragged their feet.

    Two developments accelerated the movement towards unity. The first was the unseating of Indira by the Allahabad High Court judgment in June 1975 and her declaration of Emergency in response, bundling off Opposition leaders to jail.

    As the leaders fraternized with each other in jail, it became clear to them that unity offered the only ray of hope to get them out of their sticky situation. This was admitted by senior BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani many years later. The second even was the announcement of elections in January, 1977.

    Unity had not been achieved even in the jails, and as late as July 1976, Charan Singh had gone to the extent of saying that the new party should refuse admission to Jana Sanghis who were members of the RSS. This was the first time the issue of dual membership was raised in so many words. The seeds of disintegration had taken root even before the Janata Party itself was formed.

    But soon after the announcement of elections, the Janata Party came into existence. Even the Jana Sangh compromised by keeping the more aggressive parts of their ideology on the back burner and concentrating on the acceptable objectives of decentralisation and primacy of civil society.

    Rivalries and differences dogged the Janata Party government right from the start. To begin with, Charan Singh was miffed when JP and J B Kriplani backed Morarji Desai and not him to head the new government. The BLD leader, who was also overlooked for the presidentship of the Janata Party, had to be satisfied with the Home portfolio. Secondly, the unity displayed at the top did not trickle down to the grassroots, where the different parties continued to maintain their separate identities.

    Charan Singh waited till the middle of 1978 to raise the banner of revolt when he began to openly criticize the government. First, he denounced its economic policy and then called it “a collection of impotent men” for failing to take strict action against Indira Gandhi.

    For these affronts, Morarji Desai sacked him and his lieutenant Raj Narain, the Health Minister. Disaster was avoided through mediation by Atal Behari Vajpayee, which saw both returning to the Cabinet in early 1979, with Charan Singh getting the Finance portfolio. But the hatchet had only been buried temporarily.

    It was around this time that Indira was elected to the Lok Sabha from Chikmagalur at the end of 1978 and the Congress and the Communists turned up their attack on the Janata Party government primarily by exposing the cracks that had already surfaced. Charan Singh found this an opportune moment to up the ante by reopening the dual membership issue. His lieutenant Raj Narain launched an attack on the government on the issue of communalism and demanded the resignation of ministers formerly belonging to the Jana Sangh, including leaders like Vajpayee and Advani. It was apparently a veiled attack on Morarji Desai himself.

    In June 1979, Raj Narain floated a new party called the Janata Party (Secular), which soon drew away enough MPs to reduce the Morarji Desai government to a minority.

    Though the ex-Jana Sangh members made some concessions, they came too late and Desai had to resign on 15th July. Charan Singh now became Prime Minister, mainly on the promise of support from the Raj Narain group and Indira’s Congress, but he could not prove his majority on the floor of the House, leading to his resignation in August 1979.

    Thus, came to an end a chapter in Indian politics in which the Opposition displaced the Congress for a brief while but broke up under the weight of its own contradictions.


    Kalyan Chatterjee is a Delhi NCR-based freelance journalist. He worked as a full-time journalist in UNI and Deccan Herald. For 18 years he taught mass communication. He is the author of a book Media and Nation Building in Twentieth Century India: Life and Times of Ramananda Chatterjee.

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