Lok Sabha Elections: Down The Memory Lane

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With the schedule for holding the 16th Lok Sabha elections having been announced Wednesday, you invariably start thinking whether the party or alliance of parties that you voted for five years ago has fulfilled the trust you placed in them. Your assessment is crucial, because your vote this time will be based on an understanding of the ramifications of the exercise of state power. You would also want to assess each party’s stand on major issues facing the nation before casting your vote.

Since independence in 1947 from British rule, India has held parliamentary elections 15 times. The five-year term of the 15th Lok Sabha consisting of 543 members elected from 28 states and seven union territories (plus two nominated members) is due to end on May 31, 2014.

The country saw tremendous changes following independence. Jawaharlal Nehru, considered the nation’s architect, was appointed prime minister by the Congress party in 1947. Thereafter India managed to sever any remaining links with Britain by choosing to become a sovereign democratic republic in 1950. The next year, the country decided to go in for general elections to constitute the House of the People – the Lok Sabha – as provided for in the constitution.

The number of eligible voters in the first general election in 1951-52 was 105 million. The electorate grew to 714 million in the 2009 polls and will be 814 million in the 16th Lok Sabha polls beginning next month. In the young nation’s first general election in 1951-52, there were three types of constituencies: 314 with single seats, 86 with two seats and one with three seats. The total seats thus were 489 from 401 constituencies. The Congress won 364 seats under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru in the inaugural polls. Two seats were reserved for Anglo-Indians.

In the second general elections in 1957 too, there were 91 two-seat constituencies apart from 312 single seat ones. The Congress won 371 seats of the total 494. The multiple-seat constituencies were abolished before the third general elections. In the 1962 elections, the 18 states and union territories elected 494 members. The Congress remained ahead with 361 seats.

Nehru died on May 27, 1964 after holding office for about 17 years. He was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who held power for just over two years. Shastri became a national hero following the victory in the India-Pakistan war of 1965. His “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” slogan became very popular during the war, which was formally ended under the Tashkent Agreement of January 10, 1966. Shastri died in Tashkent the following day of a heart attack.

Gulzari Lal Nanda, a Gandhian, was interim prime minister on two occasions for 14 days each after the death of Nehru (from May 27, 1964, to June 9, 1964) and again after the death of Shastri (from Jan 11 to 24, 1966). Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, held the high office from Jan 24, 1966, to March 24, 1977 and again from Jan 14 to Oct 31, 1984, just 300 days short of her father.

The fourth general elections in 1967 saw the Congress tally coming down to 283 in a total of 520 seats, with the Swatantra Party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the SSP and the DMK gaining some strength. The fifth general elections were held early in March 1971 and the Congress under Indira Gandhi did remarkably well, winning 352 seats out of a total of 518.

The Iron Lady of India alienated a sizable chunk of her supporters by imposing emergency rule in 1975 to save her government from an opposition onslaught after an adverse court verdict. Four opposition parties – the Congress (O), the Jana Sangh, the Bharatiya Lok Dal and the Socialist Party – fighting the sixth Lok Sabha elections in 1977 under a single banner – Janata Party – defeated the Congress for the first time. Their total was 298 seats in a house of 542. The Congress got pushed down to 153.

The Janata Party, however failed to hold together and yielded ground to the Congress in the seventh general elections in 1980. The Congress, led by Indira Gandhi, won 351 seats. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on Oct 31, 1984, by two of her Sikh bodyguards, in revenge for the disastrous Operation Bluestar army operation she had ordered earlier in the year to flush out heavily armed militants from Amritsar’s Golden Temple. Her son Rajiv Gandhi was elevated to the prime minister’s office and soon led the Congress to win the 1984 general elections with 414 seats, the party’s highest strength ever.

Rajiv Gandhi got mired in many controversies: the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Bhopal Gas Disaster and the Shah Bano case. In 1988, Gandhi reversed a coup in the Maldives, antagonising militant Tamil groups such as PLOTE. He was also responsible for first intervening and then sending the Indian Peace-Keeping Force to Sri Lanka in 1987, which soon ended in open conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In mid-1987, the Bofors scandal damaged his corruption-free image and resulted in a major defeat for his party in the 1989 elections. The Congress could win just 197 seats.

For the first time, V.P. Singh, who was finance minister in the Rajiv Gandhi cabinet, headed a minority government of the National Front. He was the seventh prime minister of India and held office for slightly less than a year, from Dec 2, 1989, to Nov 10,1990. He was succeeded by Chandra Shekhar of the Samajwadi Janata Party, who was in office till March 6, 1991.

Rajiv Gandhi remained Congress president until the 1991 elections, but was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber during the poll campaigning. In the 10th Lok Sabha elections, no party could get a majority (Cong 244, BJP 120, JD 59, CPI-M 35) and a minority government was formed by the Congress with the help of the Left parties. Headed by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, it proved to be a stable government and lasted for the next five years.

The 1996 elections resulted in a hung parliament, which saw three prime ministers in two years and forced the country back to the polls in 1998. It was the worst result for the Congress in its history.

The BJP became the largest party within the Lok Sabha, a first for a non-Congress party. President Shankar Dayal Sharma invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee as leader of the BJP to form a government. Sworn in on May 15, the new prime minister was given two weeks to prove his majority in parliament. In the weeks leading up to the first confidence vote on May 31, the BJP attempted to build a coalition by moderating positions to garner support from regional and Muslim parties. On May 28, Vajpayee conceded that he could not arrange support from more than 200 of the 545 members of parliament, and thus resigned, ending his 13-day government.

The second largest party, the Congress declined to attempt to form a government. Instead it chose to support one headed by the Janata Dal, leading to former Karnataka chief minister H.K. Deve Gowda becoming the prime minister. The Janata Dal and a bloc of smaller parties formed a United Front and got support from 332 of the 545 members in the Lok Sabha. Deve Gowda became the 14th prime minister of India.

In April 1997, the Congress party, which was supporting the United Front government from outside, decided to withdraw support, which led to its collapse. To avoid elections, a compromise was reached. The Congress party agreed to support another United Front government under a new leader provided its concerns, such as not being consulted before taking important decisions and being marginalized, were addressed. The United Front elected I. K. Gujral as its new leader and he was sworn in as prime minister on April 21, 1997. He was the first prime minister from the Rajya Sabha.

Gujral continued in office for over 11 months, including three months as caretaker prime minister. The next elections were held in 1998 when the Congress left the United Front government led by Gujral after it refused to drop the DMK from the government. The DMK had been linked by an investigative panel to Sri Lankan separatists blamed for the killing of Rajiv Gandhi.

The outcome of the new elections was also indecisive, with no party or alliance able to create a strong majority. Although the BJP’s Vajpayee retained his position of prime minister getting support from 286 members out of 545, the government collapsed again in late 1998 when the AIADMK, with its 18 seats, withdrew its support, leading to new elections in 1999.

It also marked the first time since independence that India’s traditional governing party, the Congress, failed to win two consecutive elections. The 13th Lok Sabha elections are of historical importance as it was the first time a united front of parties managed to attain a majority and form a government that lasted a full term of five years, thus ending a period of political instability at the national level . The BJP went into the election as head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of over 20 right-wing parties. The results were decisively in favour of the BJP and the NDA. The NDA picked up 269 seats, and a further 29 seats were taken by the Telugu Desam Party which gave support to the BJP-led government but was not strictly part of its alliance.

Elections were then held in four phases between April 20 and May 10, 2004, with over 670 million people eligible to vote, electing 543 members of the 14th Lok Sabha. On May 13 the ruling BJP and NDA conceded defeat. The Congress returned to power after a record eight years out of office. It was able to put together a comfortable majority of more than 335 members out of 543 with the help of its allies. The 335 members included both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the governing coalition formed after the election. Besides, it received external support from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Kerala Congress (KC) and the Left Front.

In the 15th general elections held in 2009, the UPA was able to put together a comfortable majority with support from 322 members. Though this is less than the 335 members who supported the UPA in the last parliament, UPA alone had a plurality of over 260 seats as opposed to 218 seats in the 14th Lok Sabha.