The turbulence of India’s political turncoats

As Nitish Kumar does another volte-face, a look at other leaders whose dramatic decisions changed the political course of the country

August 18, 2022 03:10 pm | Updated August 21, 2022 04:34 pm IST

Several political figures have shaken the Indian polity in the last three decades or so

Several political figures have shaken the Indian polity in the last three decades or so

Every few years, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar takes a secular turn only to lose his way in the political labyrinth. In 2013, he made the first such switch, snapping ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a year before the momentous 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and just a week after the party declared Narendra Modi the de facto prime ministerial candidate. Kumar, who had been an ally of the BJP since 1995, was uncomfortable with the party’s choice. He walked away, claiming the prime minister should be a person who values secularism as a key governing principle. His 2013 stand was in stark contrast to his position on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Allies deserted the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government over the ‘genocide’ in Gujarat, but Kumar stayed on as Union agriculture minister. In 2015, he did another somersault by allying with his erstwhile bête noire, Lalu Prasad Yadav, with whom he had been feuding for two decades after he engineered a revolt against his ‘dictatorial’ ways in 1994. The two formed a mahagatbandhan, tied together by their mutual anti-BJP feeling. They won the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, only for Kumar to rediscover his reasons for disliking Yadav in 2017. Heeding the voice of his antar-atma, or conscience, he cut ties with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and returned to BJP. After five years, on August 9 this year, he walked out of the NDA yet again to return to RJD. And it is unlikely that this is his last volte-face.

Also Read: Nitish Kumar | The man who mastered political engineering

Kumar is not India’s only turncoat. We bring to you chapters in the lives of political figures who have shaken the Indian polity in the last three decades or so.

The fall and fall of V.P. Singh

Former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. THE HINDU

Former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh with former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. THE HINDU | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

V.P. Singh was perhaps India’s first anti-corruption crusader. He famously walked out of the Rajiv Gandhi government in April 1987 raising a red flag over the Bofors deal. In the 1989 general elections, Singh emerged as the primary challenger to Rajiv Gandhi. The results, however, fell short of expectations for Singh (the president of the Janata Dal) who haphazardly stitched together an outfit of an array of parties. Singh needed both the BJP and Left parties to support him to stay in office, a combination that never repeated thereafter in Indian politics. And yet, he could not extend his stay beyond 11 months. The downfall of his government happened when the Congress lent a helping hand to the BJP, two strange bedfellows united in pursuit of power. The countdown for the end of Singh’s government began when the Rath Yatra of BJP leader L.K. Advani was stalled in Bihar and he was arrested in October 1990. The BJP withdrew support and the Congress voted with them and opposed the confidence motion moved by Singh the next month. The beleaguered prime minister called upon secular forces to stand by him. But for the Congress secularism was out of the syllabus. Rajiv Gandhi laughed at Singh’s discovery of ‘secularism’ and reminded him that it was Janata Dal that tied with the BJP to grab power at the Centre. The BJP-Congress combine ensured 346 votes against the government as against a measly 142 in support of it.

Kesri in a hurry

Sitaram Kesri in New Delhi in 1995.

Sitaram Kesri in New Delhi in 1995. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the 1996 Lok Sabha Elections, BJP got 161 seats and Congress 140. Neither had the strength to make a government on its own. But BJP still gave it a shot resulting in Vajpayee’s 13-day government. A united opposition cobbled together a government installing H.D. Deve Gowda as prime minister. The Congress lent support from outside but even with the united effort the United Front didn’t survive for long. In the latest biography of H.D. Deve Gowda, Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda, author Sugata Srinivasaraju gives an account of the events. It all started with a meeting between Congress leader Rajesh Pilot and Gowda. Pilot was vying for the president’s post. ‘He (Pilot) spoke about a three-year-old murder case against Congress President Sitaram Kesri and asked if it could be reopened’. Soon after the Pilot-Gowda meeting, newspaper reports stated that the Delhi police was reopening the probe and Kesri was summoned for questioning. Kesri was spooked by this episode. Finally, when Gowda went to Moscow on a state visit in March 1997, Kesri surreptitiously met Shankar Dayal Sharma with a letter withdrawing support to the Gowda government. Sharma returned the letter asking Kesri to have a rethink. The latter returned a second time in March 1997.

The Congress, barring a small group, didn’t have a clue about what Kesri was up to. Leader of the Opposition, Sharad Pawar, himself called it a “bolt from the blue.” The operation was executed in extreme secrecy as Pranab Mukerjee has recounted in his book The Coalition Years: “In a bid to maintain secrecy and not allow the reporters waiting outside his residence to get any hint of what was on the anvil, Kesri took me along in his car while mine followed. We took a circuitous route to Rashtrapati Bhavan to throw off any enterprising reporter who might have thought of following us. Close to the destination, I got off Kesri’s car, got into mine, and headed home, while Kesri went to Rashtrapati Bhavan.”

Gowda lost the trust vote and lamented that it was Kesri’s haste that brought his government down. He quoted the The Economist’s famous headline used for Kesri: ‘India’s old man in a hurry’.

Jayalalithaa’s tea-party

Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi with former chief minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalitha.

Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi with former chief minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalitha. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) could probably be the first regional party that ended the ‘untouchability’ of the BJP by announcing support to the Vajpayee government in March 1998. The relationship had a rocky beginning. Just a month into the government, AIADMK MP Sedapatti R. Muthiah was forced to resign from the cabinet because of a corruption case against him. The AIADMK-BJP relationship spiralled from here. The party members were livid that only their nominee was forced to resign while many others in Vajpayee’s cabinet were facing corruption charges. Jayalalithaa wanted the Centre to dismiss the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu. She was angry at the Vajpayee government’s indifferent attitude towards three cases filed against her by federal investigation agencies. The flashpoint came when the chief of the Indian Navy, admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was dismissed from the post by the Centre in December 1998. Jayalalithaa latched on to this issue, condemned the decision and attacked the then Union defence minister George Fernandes. In April 1999, Jayalalithaa met president K.R. Narayanan and submitted a letter withdrawing support for the Vajpayee government. It was not a coincidence that just few days earlier she attended a tea-party organised by Subramanian Swamy where Sonia Gandhi was the other eminent guest.

The DMK, which had six members in the Lok Sabha, supported the confidence motion moved by Vajpayee. But their support was inadequate. Vajpayee famously lost the confidence motion by one vote.

Pawar vs. Sonia

Rajya Sabha MP and NCP leader Sharad Pawar.

Rajya Sabha MP and NCP leader Sharad Pawar. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In March 1998, Sonia Gandhi replaced Sitaram Kesri as Congress president after the Congress Working Committee (CWC) unceremoniously stripped the latter of the post. Soon after she took over, the internal party rules were amended to allow even a non-MP to become the leader of Congress Parliamentary Party, allowing Gandhi to take on this role. This threatened Sharad Pawar’s stature as the party’s Lok Sabha leader. Around this time, BJP had started a campaign against Gandhi’s foreign birth. In May 1999, Gandhi called a CWC meeting. Describing the meeting, Pawar writes in his autobiography, On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power, ‘She pulled out a sheet of paper and read aloud: I was born outside India. If this becomes an issue in the campaign how would it impact our party’s performance in the election?’ He writes that all CWC members spoke in support of her barring P.A. Sangma, Tariq Anwar and himself. The meeting ended with an awkward silence. Gandhi did not utter a word. A few days later she resigned as president, triggering protests that were directed at the three ‘dissenters’. Explaining their position, the three wrote a joint letter: ‘Soniaji, you have lived as a daughter-in-law to India for the past 30 years. You have, in your own way, absorbed much of this great country’s spirit. You are in the line of many non-Indians who have loved and adopted this country and worked for its benefit. The Congress party which you now lead was the brainchild of a Scotsman, Sir A. O. Hume. The seat you occupy was once adorned by Annie Besant... Soniaji, you have become a part of us because you have all along respected this. We therefore find it strange that you should allow yourself to forget it at this crucial juncture. It is not possible that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence and ability, can have anyone other than an Indian, born of Indian soil, to head its government.’

The letter also demanded that the Congress manifesto should suggest an amendment to the Constitution to the effect that the offices of the president, vice president and prime minister can only be held by natural born Indian citizens. In June 1999 the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was born out of this revolt. Ironically enough, just months after his rebellion, Pawar’s newly formed NCP took the ‘prudent and practical’ option of allying with the parent party to rule Maharashtra. NCP supported the Congress and Vilasrao Deshmukh became the chief minister of the Congress-NCP government. Four years later, in 2003, Gandhi walked down to Pawar’s home looking for an ally ahead of the next general elections.

Yadav’s enlightenment

Former defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav in New Delhi in 1997.

Former defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav in New Delhi in 1997. | Photo Credit: PIB

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government feared that it will be washed out in the monsoon of 2008 with the Left front forcing a trust vote in July on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. That is, until the Samajwadi Party (SP) president Mulayam Singh Yadav came in with a rescue raft. The Left front remained adamantly against the deal, which they believed would make India a subordinate ally of the U.S.. Prime minister Manmohan Singh showed some adroit political manoeuvring. Even as the Left-UPA coordination committee was discussing the pros and cons of the nuclear deal in the background the Congress leadership and the prime minister’s office had started preparing for the worst. The Congress was looking for 47 votes to replace the Left front’s votes in the Lok Sabha. SP, with 39 MPs, was an obvious choice. The only problem was SP president Yadav had been speaking out against the deal much like his Leftist colleagues. “SP held the magic wand that could liberate Singh from the Left hegemony. The Congress knew it was well within striking distance,” says senior journalist and author P. Raman.

Singh invited the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for dinner in May. The BSP declined the invite and the SP attended it. The dinner proved to be an icebreaker. Yadav also had an hour-long meeting with president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Emerging from the meeting with Kalam, Yadav, who had opposed the deal now gushed in favour of it. His enlightenment helped the Singh government live to tell the tale. But in the next Lok Sabha elections both SP and the Left front suffered a setback due to their stance.

Naidu out of the shadows

N.T. Rama Rao, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

N.T. Rama Rao, former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Nandamuri Taraka Rama Rao (NTR) ruled Telugu cinema for three decades. His political debut — establishing the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — to challenge Congress’s hegemony in the State was equally spectacular. The electoral success came early. Within two years, the newly formed party stormed to power in the State, destroying the Congress. NTR’s downfall was as sudden as his rise and it began with his love story. An ageing NTR found love, and against the wishes of his 11 children, married Lakshmi Parvathi. His son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu, who for years had been living in his shadow and working on the margins to construct and sustain the party, was particularly perturbed by the new romance. He believed he was the rightful heir, but Parvathi had started carving out a notable niche for herself within the party. NTR campaigned for the December 1994 Assembly elections leaning on Parvathi. The two were inseparable. TDP, which had been sitting in the opposition for long, had a triumphant return to power surpassing its own record of the 1983 and 1985 elections. The party won the largest-ever majority in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, with 219 seats on its own and more than 250 seats along with allies, in a house of 294. NTR couldn’t enjoy the afterglow of victory for too long. In August 1995, the discontent among the ranks over the prominence of Parvathi in the party boiled over, with Naidu leading the charge. On August 24, 1995, all MLAs and ministers supporting Naidu, gathered at the Viceroy Hotel near the secretariat. The next day, NTR, still under the impression he held sway over his party, rode atop the ‘chaitanaya ratham’, a make-shift chariot that he used for campaigning, and reached the hotel with some loyal ministers and his wife by his side. In his book Maverick Messiah: A Political Biography of N.T. Rama Rao, author Ramesh Kandula vividly captures the episode: “His own MLAs ensconced behind the imposing gates of the hotel, heckled, taunted and jeered at him. A dreaded leader of the party till the other day, he was now reduced to an object of ridicule.” In the end, of the 219 MLAs, only 28 decided to stay back with him. In September 1995, 45-year-old Naidu, the second youngest chief minister in the State’s history, was sworn in.

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