India acquired independence on 15 August 1947 though sections of the country were carved out and stitched together to create another new country, Pakistan. The “institutional” road to independence was perhaps laid down by the Government of India Act of 1935, where the gradual emergence of India as a self-governing entity had first been partly envisioned. Following India’s independence in 1947, the Constituent Assembly deliberated over the precise constitutional future of India.
On 26 January 1950, India became a Republic, and the Constitution of India was promulgated. Jawaharlal Nehru had become the country’s first Prime Minister in 1947, and in 1952, in the country’s first general election with a universal franchise, Nehru led the Indian National Congress to a clear victory. The Congress had long been the principal political party in India, providing the leadership to the struggle for independence, and under Nehru’s stewardship it remained the largest and most influential party over the next three decades.
In 1957, Nehru was elected to yet another five-year term as a member of the Lok Sabha and chosen to head the government. His ‘regime’ was marked by the advent of five-year plans, designed to bring big science and industry to India; in Nehru’s own language, steel mills and dams were to be the temples of modern India. Relations with Pakistan remained chilling, and the purported friendship of India and China proved to be something of a hoax. China’s invasion of India’s borders in 1962 is said to have dealt a mortal blow to Nehru.
Nehru was succeeded at his death on 27 May 1964 for a period of two weeks by Gulzarilal Nanda (1898-1998), a veteran Congress politician who became active in the non-cooperation movement in 1922 and served several prison terms, principally in 1932 and from 1942-44 during the Quit India movement. Nanda served as acting Prime Minister until the Congress had elected a new leader, Lal Bahadur Shastri, also a veteran politician who came of age during the Gandhi-led non-cooperation movement. Shastri was the compromise candidate who, perhaps unexpectedly, led the country to something of a victory over Pakistan in 1965.
Shastri and the vanquished Pakistani President, Muhammad Ayub Khan, signed a peace treaty at Tashkent in the former Soviet Union on 10 January 1966, but Shastri barely lived to witness the accolades that were now being showered upon him since he died of an heart attack the day after the treaty was signed. Shastri’s empathy for the subaltern classes is conveyed through the slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, “Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer”, which is attributed to him and through which he is remembered at Vijay Ghat, the national memorial to him in New Delhi in the proximity of Rajghat, the national memorial to Mohandas Gandhi.
On Shastri’s death, the Congress was once again engulfed by an internal struggle. Gulzarilal Nanda once again served as the acting Prime Minister, again for a period of less than a month, before being succeeded by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter. By the late 1960s, Indira Gandhi had engineered a split in the Congress, as the only means to ensure her political survival, and the Congress party, which with every passing year was losing something of its shine, now went into a precipitous decline.
In 1971, India crushed Pakistan in a short war that also saw the birth of Bangladesh, and Indira was now at the helm of her powers. But the Congress was now a mere shadow of its former self, and as domestic problems mounted and popular movements directed at Indira Gandhi began to show their effect, she resorted to more repressive measures. An internal emergency, which placed almost the entire opposition behind bars, was proclaimed in May 1975, and only removed in 1977; and the same opposition, which hastily convened to chart its strategy, achieved in delivering the Congress party its first loss in national elections.
This government, serving various political interests and led by the victorious Janata Party, which had been formed out of various opposition parties, lasted a mere three years. It was led by the controversial Gandhian and Congress stalwart, Morarji Desai, for two years, and for another year by Chaudhary Charan Singh (1902-1987), who came from a Jat farming community with roots in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The Lok Sabha or Lower Assembly never met during Charan Singh’s Prime Ministership and the political alliance crumbled. Indira Gandhi rode a spectacular wave of victory in 1980.
But she did not live to complete her term: shot by her own Sikh bodyguards, who sought to avenge the destruction unleashed upon the Golden Temple, the venerable shrine of the Sikh faith, by Indian government troops given the task of flushing out the terrorists holed in the shrine, she was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, in late 1984. In the December 1994 Lok Sabha elections, Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party won a landslide election.
But Rajiv’s premiership was to be marked by numerous political disasters, and Rajiv’s own name was tainted by the allegation that he had received huge ribes from a Swedish firm of Bofors, manufacturers of a machine-gun for which the Indian army placed a large order. His own finance minister, V. P. Singh (1931-), once a Indira Gandhi loyalist who had been picked by her in 1980 to serve as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, was to turn against Rajiv; and in 1989, V. P. Singh led the Janata Party to an electoral rout over the Congress.
However, the revived Janata party mustered only 145 votes, and it had to take the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by L. K. Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee, in order to form a government. It is at this juncture that India truly entered the era of coalition governments. V. P. Singh would soon be brought down by two disputes: one over the status of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque that Hindu militants claimed had been built over the Ram Janmasthan [birthplace], and the second over the recommendations of the Mandal commission pertaining to quotas for various elements of India’s underprivileged masses.
On 7 November 1990, by a vote of 356-151, V. P. Singh lost the confidence of the Lok Sabha, and some days later Chandra Sekhar (1927-), with the support of Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, was sworn in as the next prime minister. However, Congress withdrew its support in March 1991, and elections were called in May. On 21 May 1991, as intense electioneering was taking place, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber.
The mantle of Congress leadership fell on the veteran P. V. Narasimha Rao (1921-2004), who led the party to triumph, even as the BJP raised the number of its seats in Parliament from a little over 80 to 120. On 6 December 1992, acting in defiance of Supreme Court orders, Hindu militants destroyed the Babri Masjid, and so initiated one of the most intense crises in India’s post-independent history. Rao weathered many a storm, and presided over the liberalization of the economy — the architect of which was Manmohan Singh, then Finance Minister and, since 2004, the Prime Minister of India.
But Rao could not keep the BJP and its friends in check. In the general elections of 1996, the BJP emerged as the largest party, but its 194 seats were not enough to give it a working majority in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s first government lasted a mere twelve days. A 13-party coalition of the United National Front and the Indian left was brought into power, and Deve Gowda, the Chief Minister of Karnataka, was raised to the office of the Prime Minister; but after less than a year in office, he esigned and was succeeded by Inder Kumar Gujral, whose main contribution in office was to bequeath “the Gujral doctrine” – a reference to his genuine attempts to mend India’s relations with its South Asian neighbors, based on the principle that as the largest country, India could afford to be generous, and did not have to require reciprocity for all its munificent actions.
But Gujral’s government similarly lasted less than a year; and in the general elections of February 1998, the BJP emerged again as the single largest party, this time with 200 seats. Vajpayee was invited to form a government, and did so with a coalition of several parties, including the AIADMK, led by Jayalalitha. Nothing that the BJP did was so ripe with consequences as the decision to turn India into a nuclear state with a series of nuclear tests in May 1998.
The coalition, not unpredictably, broke down; but the general elections of September 1999, in which the BJP again emerged as the single largest party, and the Congress had a poor showing at the polls, despite being led by Sonia Gandhi, a scion of the ‘Nehru dynasty’, were to reinforce the impression that regional parties and politics have fundamentally altered the state of Indian politics. Under Vajpayee, the BJP presided over the country’s destiny until 2004, even though it was becoming inescapably clear that the dominance of any one party is no longer a foregone conclusion and that coalition politics appears to be the way of the future.
Many commentators were rightfully alarmed by various ominous developments that transpired during the BJP’s years in office, such as the coercive Hinduization of the country, the inability of the state to guarantee the rights of religious minorities, and other obvious manifestations of an utter disregard for human rights, such as state-sponsored killings in Kashmir, the north-east, and elsewhere, or the oppressions unleashed upon Christians and women.
On the other hand, Vajpayee and the BJP are not only credited with having administered a crushing blow to Pakistan’s adventurism on the Himalayan mountain tops at Kargil, but with having spearheaded a rapid expansion of the Indian economy. In provincial elections held in several states in late 2003, the BJP registered impressive triumphs and the party leadership was led into thinking that, in calling for early elections, it could consolidate its gains with a magisterial showing in national elections.
The BJP waged a campaign on the slogan of “India Shining”, trumpeting the emergence of India as a major power. However, the Indian electorate once again showed that it was not to be taken for granted, and the BJP and its allies lost to a coalition headed by the Congress party. The Fourteenth Lok Sabha convened on 17 May 2004 and Manmohan Singh (1932-) assumed the office of the Prime Minister at the head of what is known as the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government. The UPA is supported by the Left Front, a coalition of parties headed by the CPM, or the Communist Party of India (Marxist).