India's first coalition government at the Centre (1977-1979) was led by Morarji Desai after Emergency.
The shortest lived coalition experiment was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 13-day government in May 1996.
An American essayist of a previous century, Charles Dudley Warner, once commented that politics made strange bedfellows. His remark was most likely triggered by observing the shenanigans of politicians in his country, a mere two-party democracy. At that time, India hadn’t emerged as a nation of its own. But when it did, it didn’t waste much time and morality over sleeping with the enemy.
In 1967, barely two decades into nationhood, a certain politician in the Haryana assembly, who was interestingly christened Gaya Ram, crossed over from the Congress to the United Front, back to his parent party and then, again to the United Front, all in the course of nine hours. During his brief return to the Congress that day, a colleague quipped, “Gaya Ram is now Aaya Ram’’, and thus was born a phrase to describe floor crossers: the Aaya Ram Gaya Rams.
Though such individual walkovers were banned in 1985, Indian politics continues to throw up some of the strangest marriages, not just with die-hard ideologues crossing over to enemy lines, but even parties themselves entering into unexpected alliances. Some are expectedly short-lived, some unexpectedly robust and some so discordant that the opposition seems more tractable than the partner. Sample this: The Nationalist Congress Party was carved out of the parent Congress in 1999 over differences regarding Italy-born Sonia Gandhi being made leader. The two have a strange relationship, sometimes opposing each other, at others, forming rather compatible alliances. At least the NCP and the Congress are similar in ideology. But look at how the Congress merrily hopped into bed with the Left during the recent elections in West Bengal even as the two fought fiercely on opposite sides in Kerala at the same time. Just about any political combination is possible.
“Unconventional marriages are not unique to Indian politics, but given the nature of our multi-party democracy, I imagine that we do throw up the strangest permutations,’’ says Abhay Kumar Dubey, a social scientist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. According to the Election Commission, in 2015, there were 1,866 registered political parties in the country.
“The first such move was way back in 1967, when Ram Manohar Lohia forged the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal in ten states and brought together a motley of parties, all of which had only one common intent of keeping the Congress out of power, without caring for their respective ideologies,’’ Dubey explains. The first victims of unpredictable tie-ups are party ideologies.
In the party scene in India, you get every type, from boutique parties to massive conglomerates. “The only way a small party can hitch a ride into power is with a tie-up. Then it demands an unnaturally large share of the power pie, not commensurate with its own size and prominence,” says Dubey. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh had once infamously spoken about the compulsions of coalition politics.
Unpredictable alliances are not made to benefit the voter, but to get the largest vote share. So it’s quite immaterial to politicians whether the electorate benefits or loses through their bed hopping. “It is just the reality of Indian politics,’’ observes Dubey. What power-hungry politicians refuse to understand time and again is that the voter is Indian, too, and can be predictably unpredictable. Read the next section for more on this.