How have coalitions in India picked Prime Ministers? | Explained

‘Modi Vs Who?’— a quip BJP keeps taunting the INDIA bloc with, has raised questions as to who will be their Prime Ministerial candidate and how he will be picked. Here’s a look at how six of India’s coalition Prime Ministers were picked.

Updated - June 06, 2024 02:52 pm IST

Published - June 02, 2024 10:33 pm IST

United Front leaders at a public meeting in New Delhi on May 20, 1996. United Front leaders (from left) Arjun Singh, M.A. Farooqi, P. Chidambaram, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Sharad Yadav and I.K. Gujral.

United Front leaders at a public meeting in New Delhi on May 20, 1996. United Front leaders (from left) Arjun Singh, M.A. Farooqi, P. Chidambaram, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, Sharad Yadav and I.K. Gujral. | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

The story so far: The high-voltage poll campaign for the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections has wrapped up with incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserting that he will be awarded a third consecutive term. On the other hand, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) is yet to announce its PM pick. The last leg of polling was held on June 1 and results will be announced on June 4.

“The INDIA bloc will get a decisive mandate in the Lok Sabha polls and may take even less than 48 hours to decide on its prime ministerial pick,” said Congress veteran Jairam Ramesh on May 30. He added that the party which gets the maximum seats in the alliance will be a “natural claimant” for its leadership.

Since 1998, the Indian Prime Minister has either belonged to the Indian National Congress (Congress) or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), making the process of picking a PM candidate an easy one. However, whenever the Lok Sabha mandate is split and a coalition comes to power, the process has been complex and fraught with political negotiations. On six instances when a non-Congress, non-BJP leader was chosen as PM, they have not lasted a complete five-year term.

Here’s a look at how these six Prime Ministers were picked

Morarji Desai (March 1977-July 1979)

After two years of Emergency rule imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Lok Sabha elections were called in March 1977. Banding together to overthrow Ms. Gandhi, six parties with varied ideologies — Jan Sangh, Congress (O), Bharatiya Lok Dal, Socialist party, Swatantra Party and the newly-formed Congress for Democracy (CFD) — merged to form the Janata Party in January 1977, mere weeks ahead of the polls.

Led by freedom fighter Jaya Prakash Narayan, known popularly as JP, the Janata Party swept the Hindi heartland, winning 270 seats in total and reducing the Congress from 350 to 153 seats. With the Janata Party winning majority seats in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Chandigarh, Congress was restricted to the Southern states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala.

Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha churned out mixed results.

The Prime Minister Morarji Desai, addressing the conference of Chief Ministers at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on July 30, 1977. Charan Singh, Minister of Home Affairs and Jagjivan Ram, Minister of Defence are also seen in picture.

The Prime Minister Morarji Desai, addressing the conference of Chief Ministers at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi on July 30, 1977. Charan Singh, Minister of Home Affairs and Jagjivan Ram, Minister of Defence are also seen in picture.

Two names were in contention for the top post – Congress (O) leader Morarji Desai and CFD founder Jagjivan Ram. As talks for government formation proceeded, CFD decided to remain a separate group in Parliament supporting the Janata Party. The Hindu’s editorial opined that the price ”sought by the CFD leader for the merger may have been the Prime Ministership for himself.” With 270 Janata Party MPs backing Mr. Desai, who had suffered long incarceration under the Emergency, the support of 28 MPs for Mr. Jagjivan Ram paled in comparison. Also, many Janata leaders were wary of the fact that Mr. Jagjivan Ram had supported Ms. Gandhi during the Emergency era and switched loyalties only ahead of elections when Ms. Gandhi was most unpopular.

With expert manoeuvring by JP and Socialist leader J. B. Kripalani, Mr. Desai was elected as Janata Parliamentary Party leader – an event which was missed by Mr. Jagjivan Ram. To appease Mr. Jagjivan Ram, who refused to hold any cabinet in the Morarji Desai government, he was chosen as deputy Prime Minister.

Charan Singh (July 1979-January 1980)

Within two years of formation, the Janata Party split into factions as ideological differences and political ambitions of the various party leaders peaked. Bharatiya Kranti Dal founder Charan Singh, who was the Union Home Minister in the Morarji Desai government, dissolved ten State assemblies which were under Congress rule, creating instability in various parts of India. He also arrested Indira Gandhi for alleged poll violations during her 1977 election campaign, but the magistrate dismissed charges against her – a major embarrassment for Mr. Singh.

In 1978, the Shah Commission filed its report, detailing the shocking abuse of power by Indira Gandhi and her coterie during the Emergency. Despite these alarming revelations, the Morarji Desai government did not initiate any legal actions against Ms. Gandhi, to Mr. Singh’s dismay, leading to his resignation as Home Minister. In December, that year, Mr. Singh demanded a coalition government in Centre and States ruled by the Janata Party -i.e. splitting Janata Party into its original six factions. Surprisingly, post his open rebellion. Mr. Singh was rewarded with a deputy prime ministership and the Finance ministry.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Charan Singh addressing on the occasion of 32nd Independence Day celebration at Red Fort, New Delhi on August 15, 1979.

The Prime Minister, Mr. Charan Singh addressing on the occasion of 32nd Independence Day celebration at Red Fort, New Delhi on August 15, 1979.

Moreover, several Janata Party began questioning the dual membership held by Jana Sangh members who were also Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members. Union Health Minister Raj Narain resigned from his post in July 1979, citing the above issue and floated the Janata Party (Secular) faction. Along with Charan Singh, the new faction attracted dissenters from Janata Party and Congress (Indira), reducing the Morarji Desai government to a minority, which led to his resignation.

Banking on his wide-ranging support from farmers across castes, Mr. Singh stitched a coalition of Janata Party (Secular), Congress (Urs) and the outside support of Congress (I). He was sworn in as Prime Minister on July 28, 1979. Within 23 days, he was forced to resign after he refused to drop criminal charges against Ms. Gandhi and her son Sanjay for excesses during Emergency, as Congress (I) withdrew support. He remains till date the only Indian Prime Minister to never have faced Parliament

V. P. Singh (December 1989 – November 1990)

Rajiv Gandhi’s successor in the 1989 elections was the Congress dark horse – Vishwanath Pratap Singh, or V.P. Singh, his Finance minister. Mr. Singh gained popularity in the Rajiv Gandhi government due to his economic reforms, tax raids against rich industrialists and boosting foreign investment in India. However, in 1987, he resigned from his post after he came under fire for probing discrepancies in a defence deal for the purchase of submarines and unearthing the Bofors scam.

While Congress leaders criticised Mr. Singh for “embarrassing” the PM, questioning how government information was passed on to foreign powers, his image as a scrupulous politician gained him the public’s favour. Along with Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammed Khan, he formed the Jan Morcha which he later merged with other socialist parties like Jan Morcha, Janata Party and Lok Dal. He launched the Janata Dal on October 11, 1988, promising a centrist, secular alternative to the Congress.

K.P. Unnikrishnan gives a garland to Vishwanath Pratap Singh after he was unanimously elected leader of the National Front at his Parliamentary Party meeting being watched by N.T. Rama Rao and M. Karunanidhi at New Delhi on December 01, 1989

K.P. Unnikrishnan gives a garland to Vishwanath Pratap Singh after he was unanimously elected leader of the National Front at his Parliamentary Party meeting being watched by N.T. Rama Rao and M. Karunanidhi at New Delhi on December 01, 1989

Stitching an alliance with like-minded parties like Congress (S), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), and Asom Gana Parishad, he headed the National Front. In the 1989 Lok Sabha election campaign he pitched the battle as corruption in the Rajiv Gandhi government against his unblemished image — a ‘Mr. Clean’ Vs ‘Mr. Cleaner’ fight, while BJP built its electoral campaign on the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. The poll verdict saw the fall of Congress from 400 to 197 seats, while the BJP rose from 2 to 85 seats. The Left parties also managed to win 33 seats —in prime position to play kingmaker. The National Front managed to win 143 seats, but failed in its objective to form a non-Congress, non-BJP government.

After Congress refused to form a government inspite of being the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha, National Front leaders began discussions with communist and right-wing leaders. However, both BJP and the Left-wing parties refused to join the government, opting to support the National Front from outside. Three contenders emerged for the top post – Chaudhary Devi Lal, Chandrashekhar and V.P. Singh.

Top leaders of the Janata Dal are all smiles as they meet at a dinner in New Delhi on November 3, 1990. Seated from left are Mr. Devi Lal, who hosted the dinner, Mr. S. R. Bommai, Mr. V. P. Singh, Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Ajit Singh.

Top leaders of the Janata Dal are all smiles as they meet at a dinner in New Delhi on November 3, 1990. Seated from left are Mr. Devi Lal, who hosted the dinner, Mr. S. R. Bommai, Mr. V. P. Singh, Mr. Chandra Shekhar and Mr. Ajit Singh.

On December 1, 1989, V.P. Singh sprung a surprise proposing Devi Lal’s name as Prime Minister at the parliamentary party meeting in the Central Hall. This was seconded by Mr. Chandra Shekhar, another PM aspirant from the Janata Dal. However, Mr. Devi Lal refused to take up the mantle, proposing Mr. Singh’s name, which was welcomed by most MPs. Caught unaware of the intra-party dealings, a miffed Chandra Shekhar refused to serve in Mr. Singh’s cabinet. Sworn-in on December 2, 1989 as Prime Minister along with his deputy Devi Lal, Mr. Singh served for almost a year. On November 7, 1990, after BJP withdrew support to his government, Mr. Singh lost a trust vote and was forced to resign.

Chandra Shekhar (November 1990 – June 1991)

The National Front government had to immediately deal with a major crisis in its early days – the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley due to the rise in militancy and separatism. As violence rocked the Valley, doubts over the stability of V.P Singh’s government began creeping in. To assuage the resentment brewing among the backward classes, V.P. Singh ordered the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, paving the way for 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes; without consulting his allies, both in his party and outside.

A fuming BJP intensfied its Ram Janmabhoomi movement as its voter-base of upper-class Hindus began protesting against the Mandal movement, kicking off the Ram Rath Yatra led by then-BJP chief L.K. Advani. As V.P. Singh refused to back the Yatra, BJP withdrew support after Mr. Advani was arrested by then-Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav and then-Uttar Pradesh CM Mulayam Singh Yadav fired at kar sevaks who attempted to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Congress (I) president Rajiv Gandhi wishing bon voyage to Prime Minister Chandrashekhar prior to his departure for Male to attend the fifth summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in New Delhi on November 21, 1990.

Congress (I) president Rajiv Gandhi wishing bon voyage to Prime Minister Chandrashekhar prior to his departure for Male to attend the fifth summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in New Delhi on November 21, 1990.

The minority government led by V.P. Singh was finished after Mr. Chandra Shekhar along with Mr. Devi Lal split the Janata Dal, taking away 64 of its 143 MPs to form the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). Joining hands with the Congress, he was sworn in as Prime Minister on November 10, 1990.

However, his government fell within seven months after the Congress withdrew support to his government in March 1991, amid allegations that two plainclothes Haryana police personnel were ‘snooping’ on Rajiv Gandhi at his New Delhi residence 10, Janpath. Accusing the Haryana government, then led by SJP’s Om Prakash Chautala, Mr. Gandhi refused to support the Chandra Shekhar government in a vote of confidence, forcing him to resign on March 6, 1991.

H. D. Deve Gowda (June 1996 – April 1997)

After another full-term Congress government, India once again experimented with the Janata Dal in the 1996 elections. A triangular contest was fought between incumbent PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, a rising BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the ‘Third Force’. Similar to the National Front, the Third Force was led by the Janata Dal and comprised of regional parties like Samajwadi Party (SP), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), the Left Front (CPI, CPM, CPI (M-L), AIFB), Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP).

The polls, however, produced a fractured mandate with the BJP winning 161 seats, Congress 140 seats and the Janata Dal reduced to 46 seats. Though Mr. Vajpayee was sworn-in as Prime Minister, he failed to prove his majority, forcing him to resign within 13 days.

Mr. H.D. Deve Gowda, the Prime Minister-designate, seen with TDP President, Mr. N.Chandrababu Naidu addressing a media person after meeting with United Front leaders at Andhra Bhavan in New Delhi on May 29, 1996. Mr. H.D. Gowda was earlier asked by the President to form the government, and secure a vote of confidence by June 12

Mr. H.D. Deve Gowda, the Prime Minister-designate, seen with TDP President, Mr. N.Chandrababu Naidu addressing a media person after meeting with United Front leaders at Andhra Bhavan in New Delhi on May 29, 1996. Mr. H.D. Gowda was earlier asked by the President to form the government, and secure a vote of confidence by June 12 | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

Attempting to form a non-Congress, non-BJP government, TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu began holding talks with AGP, DMK and Akali Dal. Simultaneously, the Janata Dal and the Left Front began talks with the Congress to form a government. As confusion over who would head the government continued, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) passed a resolution to support the formation of a Government by political parties totally committed to secular democracy.

Boosted by Congress’ inclination, a host of Third Force leaders – Mr. H.D. Deve Gowda, Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mr. M Karunanidhi, Mr. Murasoli Maran and Mr. Atul Bora, visited ex-PM V.P. Singh to urge him to take up the post. As Mr. Singh’s whereabouts remained unknown, CPM’s Jyoti Basu, a potential PM pick himself, proposed Mr. Deve Gowda’s name which was readily agreed to by the other leaders. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who headed the Congress then and was close to Mr. Gowda, too agreed to the choice. With the support of the Third Force’s 136 MPs and Congress’ 180 MPs, Mr. Deve Gowda was sworn-in on June 2, 1996 as Prime Minister. Congress provided outside support to this ‘United Front’ government.

Inder Kumar Gujral (April 1997 – March 1998)

Despite several foreign policy successes, the first United Front government fell due to rising differences between Mr. Gowda and then-Congress president Sitaram Kesri. The initial animosity stemmed from the fact that Mr. Gowda snubbed Mr. Kesri by dealing with Mr. Rao in matters related to the coalition, seat sharing and policy.

Later, Mr. Gowda botched Congress’ attempts to form a government in Uttar Pradesh with BSP in 1996 after the polls resulted in a hung assembly. The final nail to the coffin came when Mr. Gowda refused to intervene in a CBI probe on disproportionate assets against Mr. Kesri. A furious Congress withdrew support to the UF government on March 30, 1997 and Mr. Gowda resigned on April 11, 1997 after losing the trust vote, vowing to settle scores with the Congress.

The President, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, and the Vice-President, K.R. Narayanan, with the newly sworn-in Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, and his council of Ministers at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on April 21, 1997

The President, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, and the Vice-President, K.R. Narayanan, with the newly sworn-in Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, and his council of Ministers at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on April 21, 1997 | Photo Credit: Sudershan

The United Front steering committee held two days of back-room consultations, led by Mr. Naidu between all thirteen constituent parties and Congress to pick a consensus candidate. With the backing of Mr. Basu, Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mr. Krishna Kant, Mr. Inder Kumar Gujral, the former External Affairs Minister in the Gowda government, was chosen as his successor. Congress too agreed to this pick and Mr. Gujral was sworn in as PM on April 21, ten days after Mr. Gowda’s resignation. Congress once again chose to support the government from outside.

The second United Front government too was brought down by the Congress. On November 20, 1997 the Jain Commission’s interim report tabled in Parliament accused the two Janata Dal Prime Ministers —V.P Singh and Chandrashekhar, as well as Mr. Karunanidhi of not providing adequate security to Mr. Gandhi after he remitted office in 1989 and not curbing the growing anti-national activities of the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. Despite these revelations, Mr. Gujral refused to sack DMK ministers from his cabinet, infuriating Congress which withdrew support to the Gujral government on November 28, 1997, ending the Mr. Gujral’s seven-month PM stint.

Since 1998, no third front government has been formed. This time too the Prime Ministerial pick seems to be between Mr. Modi and, most likely, a Congress candidate.

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