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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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July 15, 2020

Morarji Desai Resigns as Prime Minister

On 15 July, 1979, Prime Minister Morarji Desai resigned his position. After two years in power following the fall of the Congress Party administration in 1977, Desai’s Janata Party was rife with internal splits that forced Desai out of power. The Janata Party would dissolve shortly afterward, but many of its leaders would go on to influence Indian politics for decades.

In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a period of Emergency in India; for the next two years, civil liberties were suspended, the press was censored, and opposition politicians were arrested and held without due process. Despite the restrictions on political activity, opposition to Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party united and coalesced during the Emergency. When it was lifted in 1977, and general elections were held, a coalition of opposition parties - united under the banner of the ‘Janata Party’ - easily and resoundingly defeated the Congress, driving Gandhi out of both the Prime Minister’s office and her seat in the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house. Even by the standards of coalition politics, the Janata Party was a diverse organization, constituting leftists, liberals, socialists, and right-wing elements; its allies included regional, religious, and Communist parties. At its head was Morarji Desai, a veteran politician since India’s independence who had been a trusted confidant to Indira Gandhi’s father, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but who had famously placed himself in opposition to Indira Gandhi after resigning from her Cabinet in 1969.

Support for the Janata Party ran high in its first months in power. With a supermajority in Parliament, Desai quickly repealed the Emergency amendments to India’s Constitution and revoked the various restrictions on speech and political action. Unfortunately, Desai’s economic policy was less successful. A Nehru disciple, Desai emulated Nehru’s policies of central planning and economic self-reliance, curbing free industry and raising impassable barriers to foreign investment in India; multinational corporations, including Coca-Cola and IBM, were forced to pull out of India entirely. Labor disputes and strikes took their toll on the economy, while inflation and petrol shortages disrupted the growth of the Indian middle class; Desai’s budgets and allocations were controversial and frequently criticised. Worse, the well-publicized arrest of Indira Gandhi on charges of corruption turned into a fiasco when evidence failed to materialize, humiliating Desai’s government.

As the Janata Party lost popularity, it began to split apart on ideological lines. A number of party leaders, such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, were also members of the ostensibly apolitical, right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Other leading lights, including socialists like Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes and old freedom fighters and former Congress veterans like Raj Narain and Chaudhary Charan Singh (two of Desai’s strongest opponents within the Janata Party), demanded that Vajpayee, Advani, and their faction renounce their memberships in the RSS. Stuck in the middle, Desai forced Narain and Singh out of the government in 1978; Singh demonstrated his continuing popularity by holding a massive rally of farmers in Delhi, and Desai bowed to pressure and brought him back into his Cabinet a month later. The issue of reservations for scheduled and backward castes in government jobs and educational institutions became a political flashpoint, further driving the Janata Party’s constituents apart.

By mid-1979, the Janata Party was paralyzed by internal disputes that had grown visible to the Indian public. The activist and political leader Jayaprakash Narayan, a Janata Party founder who had played an important role in keeping its squabbling members together, had withdrawn from active politics due to his age and worsening health; nobody else seemed able to keep the party together. In April 1979, over 100 people died in a communal riot in Jamshedpur, in the state of Bihar; Narain and Singh’s faction blamed the RSS, and Narain split off to form the Janata Party (Secular), in an open attack on Desai. The Janata Party quickly splintered, and on 11 July, a resolution of no-confidence was introduced against Desai in Parliament. Over the following days, numerous allies and constituents of the Janata Party announced their intention to vote against Desai; before the motion could be voted on, Desai presented his resignation to President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy.

Desai’s resignation muddied the change of government. Technically, he had resigned as Prime Minister, but not as official leader of the Janata Party. Had the Janata Party been removed from power through a no-confidence motion, the President would have been obliged to ask the Opposition (the next-largest party, which was then the Congress) to attempt to form a government, but Desai’s resignation meant the Janata Party could still attempt to form a government. On the other hand, Charan Singh, Raj Narain, and Janata Party (Secular) saw their own opportunity to take power. Over the next weeks, Members of Parliament rapidly switched allegiances and alliances, with President Reddy hard-pressed to keep track of who was supporting whom. The final lists showed Charan Singh with a majority, through the support of the Congress, who remained a presence in the Lok Sabha. Reddy invited Singh to form a government, if he was so able; he was.

Prime Minister Charan Singh’s administration lasted three weeks. The Congress withdrew its support on the first day, and despite Singh’s best efforts, his government found no more allies. With no viable options left, Reddy dissolved the Parliament and called for a general election. In January 1980, voters went to the polls for the second time in three years. The Congress doubled its strength in the Lok Sabha and Indira Gandhi returned to power; the Janata Party had ceased to exist in any meaningful way.

The Janata Party’s rule, brief as it was, would go on to impact Indian politics for decades. India was introduced in those two years to both the opportunities and pitfalls of weak coalitions at the national level; the balance between coalitions and strong central governments has remained in flux ever since. The Janata Party era was also an education in political maneuvering for its members, and the Desai faction (though without Desai), including Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went on to form the Bharatiya Janata Party, which duplicated the strategy of forming coalitions against the Congress, and slowly taking over power, until it became the political powerhouse of today. On the other hand, socialists like Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes seemed to have lost the trust of the Indian electorate, and would be steadily marginalized in national-level politics. The weakness of both the Congress and Janata Party in those two years opened opportunities for regional parties to take power in state governments, creating a new, regional dimension to Indian politics that remains significant. Desai’s rule, and resignation, were the catalyst for political changes that continue to define India’s complex, messy politics.

Sahaj Sankaran

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