In the recently concluded general elections, voters did not give the Bharatiya Janata Party a complete majority. The BJP, with its 240 Lok Sabha seats, is forming the government along with its coalition partners of the National Democratic Alliance.

Coalitions at the national level came to public attention in 1977 when Morarji Desai formed the first non-Congress coalition government. His government, a testament to the evolving political landscape, included ministers like Charan Singh, LK Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Biju Patnaik, Parkash Singh Badal, George Fernandes and Shanti Bhushan.

Unbridled ambition, political machinations and factionalism marred the tenure of the Morarji government. Law minister Bhushan recounted how bad things had become by 1978. He wrote, “I was convinced that if the prime minister was waiting for the death of his two senior most colleagues and one of them in turn was waiting for the death of the prime minister , it was impossible for such a government to last.” The Morarji government fell in 1979, having lasted over two years.

A coalition government involves more than one political party or individuals working together, sometimes with differing viewpoints. Looking back, we find that 1977 was not the country’s first brush with a national coalition. The 1946 interim government just before Independence and the first government formed after Independence in 1947 were both coalitions.

The 1946 interim government was responsible for steering India to independence. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was at the helm of this government. It had Congress stalwarts Vallabhbhai Patel (Home), Rajendra Prasad (Food and Agriculture) and Jagjivan Ram (Labour). The government also had Sardar Baldev Singh (Defence) from the Akali Dal and experts like John Matthai (Finance), a well-regarded economist. Cooverji Hormusji Bhabha (Commerce), a Parsi businessman with interests in banking and insurance companies, enriched the government with his insights.

Festive offer

However, selecting these ministers (known as members) was sometimes controversial. For example, Maulana Azad and Vallabhbhai Patel disagreed on including Bhabha. Azad felt that Bhabha was not a leader or a true representative of the Parsi community. When the Muslim League decided to join the interim government, Patel and Azad differed on Congress’s offering of the Finance portfolio to the League.

Azad believed that losing control of a critical portfolio would create difficulties for the government. The League accepted the offer, and Liaquat Ali Khan took charge of the Finance portfolio from Matthai. According to Azad, when Liaquat became the Finance Member, he obtained the keys to the Government and not even a chaprasi could be appointed without his approval.

Beyond political affiliations

Nehru followed the coalition template in independent India’s first council of ministers. He repeated over half of the interim government ministers and brought in new ministers such as Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Health) and NV Gadgil (Works, Mines and Power). Nehru became the Prime Minister and Patel the Deputy PM. Historian Ramachandra Guha wrote that in putting together this Cabinet, Nehru followed the advice of Mahatma Gandhi and reached beyond Congress to include the best minds, regardless of political affiliations. As a result, not being a Congressman was not a bar to joining the Cabinet. It led to additions like Dr BR Ambedkar (Law), businessman RK Shanmukham Chetty (Finance), and Dr Syama Prasad Mukherjee (Industry and Supply) of the Jan Sangh.

In his book The Government and Politics of India, Prof Morris Jones highlighted, “The chosen fortress-holders of 1947 included many with little or no connection with Congress. It was a coalition government in two senses. First and foremost, it contained a strikingly careful selection of representatives of communities and regions … Secondly, it was a political coalition also, though not by virtue of containing a balance of opinions: on the contrary, the non-Congress opinions represented were all ( with the possible exception of Ambedkar) in some sense markedly conservative.”

This first Cabinet faced overwhelming challenges. Lesser-known Cabinet members like Bhabha contributed extensively to pressing issues like the refugee crisis and technical ones like the framing of the company law. Matthai, who lost two opportunities to handle the Finance portfolio, finally took charge of the ministry in 1948 and guided the nation through a difficult period.

The coalition government also underwent a churn. In 1948, Chetty, the first finance minister, resigned under a cloud after his ministry dropped the names of some individuals who had to be investigated by Income Tax authorities. Later, Mukherjee (1950) and Ambedkar (1951) resigned due to policy differences.

Mukherjee resigned because he disagreed with the government’s approach to the treatment of Hindus in Pakistan, especially in East Bengal. Explaining his resignation (in this context), he said, “It is a mighty task … and between the Government and its critics there will always be ample room for co-operation in facing a problem which concerns the peace and happiness of millions of people. and of the advancement of the entire nation.”

The writer looks at issues through a legislative lens and works at PRS Legislative Research