Election results: How have India’s past coalition governments fared?

PM Modi faces the test of ruling a coalition government. It won’t be easy, say analysts. But the past holds lessons.

Narendra Modi is likely to return as India’s prime minister for a third term but will have to rely on allies to run a coalition government for the first time after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fell short of a majority.

Modi led the BJP to landslide victories in the 2014 and 2019 elections, winning 283 and 303 respectively, becoming the dominant leader of the world’s largest democracy.

Analysts said the shock 2024 results, which saw BJP winning 240 seats – 32 short of a majority – would dent Modi’s aura and could force the 73-year-old leader to change his style of governance, which will now be partly dictated by coalition partners.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), comprising 14 parties, managed to grab 53 seats, giving the BJP-led coalition a total of 293 seats, 21 more than the required 272-seat majority.

This is not the first time the Hindu nationalist party will be heading a coalition government. In fact, the BJP’s first government, formed in 1996, was a coalition headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It lasted just for 13 days. Vajpayee returned as prime minister with the backing of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998.

Here is what coalition governments have looked like for India in the past:

1977-1979: India’s first coalition government

India’s first coalition government was formed in 1977 after the Congress lost the elections. It was the party’s first loss since leading the country’s independence from the British in 1947.

The 1977 elections were held nearly two years after Congress leader and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had imposed a state of national emergency. Gandhi lifted the emergency and announced snap elections in January 1977.

Gandhi was defeated by a diverse alliance of parties called the Janata Party, which included the BJP’s precursor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Other parties of the alliance included the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) – a fusion of seven regional left-wing parties, the Socialist Party, the Swatantra Party and the breakaway of the Congress party.

Morarji Desai became prime minister after the Janata Party’s victory in those elections.

1979-1980: How India’s first coalition splintered

The coalition under Desai lasted for two years until the Janata Party splintered due to ideological differences. Desai’s Home Minister Charan Singh broke away after he was asked to resign from the cabinet.

Singh became prime minister in 1979 with the backing of Janata Party splinter groups and outside backing from the Congress party.

But Singh’s premiership lasted only 23 days as the Congress party withdrew support, forcing Singh to resign.

In the 1980 election, Indira Gandhi returned to power, when the Congress won 353 seats. Janata Party (Secular), a faction of the Janata Party, won 41, becoming the second-largest party then.

1989: The coalition against Congress

The 1989 election results brought a new historic first for India: It was the first time no party or pre-poll coalition won a clear majority after the Congress under Indra Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, won 197 out of 529 seats.

Vishwanath Pratap Singh, an ex-Congress party leader and finance minister, stitched together a new coalition called National Front against his former party, which he had quit in 1987.

The National Front led by VP Singh managed to secure 143 seats while the BJP won 85 seats – its best performance since the party was formed in 1980. VP Singh became the prime minister in 1989, backed by the BJP.

His government fell in 1990 after the BJP pulled its support when its tallest leader, Lal Krishna Advani, was arrested during his nationwide yatra (trip) to build a Ram Temple in Ayodhya, where a 16th-century mosque stood at the time.

Chandra Shekhar, a senior Janata Dal (JD) leader, split the party – which was a part of the National Front – and formed the Samajwadi Janata Party in 1990. He succeeded VP Singh as prime minister in November 1990 with outside support from the Congress party. His government too fell several months later, ending a series of short-lived coalition governments.

In the 1991 elections, the Congress party again emerged as the largest party mostly due to sympathy over the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, father of current leader Rahul Gandhi, during a campaign rally. Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao became the prime minister with outside support from the Janata Dal. The Rao government, which completed its term, initiated the economic reforms that paved the way for high growth in the decades to come.

1996: The 13-day coalition

The BJP emerged as the single-largest party for the first time in 1996. The party won 161 seats while the Congress stood second at 140 seats, and the JD was a distant third with 46 seats.

Vajpayee was sworn in as prime minister, but he could not win a majority in the parliament. His government lasted only for 13 days.

He was succeeded by HD Deve Gowda, the leader of the United Front – a new coalition comprising 13 parties including the JD and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) as well as left-wing and communist parties. Deve Gowda’s government fell due to coalition bickering within a year. Inder Kumar Gujral took over from him, but his government also could not survive for more than a year.

1998: The birth of the NDA

Vajpayee returned as prime minister after the United Front coalition was voted out in the 1998 elections. This time, he was able to assemble a coalition called the NDA, which included parties such as the Shiv Sena and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). This government lasted 13 months before the AIADMK withdrew support.

1999: The NDA coalition

BJP leader Vajpayee led the NDA coalition to victory in 1999, winning 182 seats. The government completed its full term.

“I don’t think one can say coalition governments have not worked,” Jagdeep S Chhokar, a co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works on electoral and political reforms, told Al Jazeera.

“The diversity of India makes a coalition inherently unstable. However, that is what diversity seems to require. India can not be governed by a uniform entity. There needs to be dialogue, discussion, debate, give-and-take and being amenable to other people’s opinions – all the things which are the opposite of a dictatorship,” said Chhokar.

2004-2014: The birth of the UPA

The Congress party, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s mother, emerged as the largest party. It cobbled together a new coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Manmohan Singh, the architect of India’s economic reforms as finance minister in 1991, was chosen as the new prime minister.

The UPA alliance under the leadership of Singh was re-elected for a second term in the 2009 election on the back of impressive economic growth. Once again, the Congress ruled from 2009 to 2014 as the head of a coalition – it did not have a majority on its own.

How will Modi’s coalition government be different?

“We’ve had coalition governments for 20-30 years under Vajpayee and Singh,” said Chhokar from the Association for Democratic Reforms.

The incoming coalition government under Modi, he said, could be different “because of the individuals involved”.

“Vajpayee and Singh were different kinds of individuals, and Modi is different,” said Chhokar, adding that the previous two prime ministers “were more accommodating of differing opinions, whereas Modi seems to be the person who likes to have his way”.

“So, it may be stormy.”

Source: Al Jazeera