World

United they stood, divided they stand

Peter Niesewand July 23 1979
World

United they stood, divided they stand

Peter Niesewand July 23 1979

United they stood, divided they stand

It had always been a house of cards, and last week the hastily formed coalition which has governed the world’s most populous democracy for the past 28 months suddenly began to crumble. India’s Janata Party came into existence driven by one imperative: the need to get rid of former prime minister Indira Gandhi. The national scars ran deep. Tens of thousands of people had been jailed without trial and more than seven million compulsorily sterilized during her 18-month “emergency.” So Janata had no trouble with its first objectives: ousting her and restoring civil rights.

But once those tasks were accomplished the problems started. The chief unanswered question: what to do next? It wasn’t that there was a shortage of ideas. The hang-up really arose because the Janata coalition contained some strangely assorted partners. On the extreme right wing was the Hindu populist party, the Jana Sangh, the most powerful single coalition faction. Lurking behind it: the militant Hindu chauvinist group, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) whose members are believed to have caused much of the Hin-

du-Moslem violence which this year alone has claimed more than 140 dead and 800 injured. On the left wing of the Janata were the vague Gandhian socialists supporting Deputy Prime Minister Charan Singh.

King of this ragtag group of five parties

was Morarji Desai, an austere authoritarian of 83. But last week he began to look more and more like a king without a throne as more than 50 coalition members defected, leaving him without a majority in parliament. The reasons for the defection were twofold. As former health minister Raj Narain, whose departure set the house of cards toppling, saw it, “Virtually there is no government in the country today."

The other complaint was voiced by Industry Minister George Fernandes, who told a convention of socialists he had been appalled at the hold which the Jana Sangh—and therefore the rss—seemed to have over Desai.

By the end of last week, parliament was embroiled in a no-confidence debate, with a vote scheduled for Monday. Desai, unflappable as ever, was insisting he would win it, but the odds were stacked against him. Even so, a government defeat would not necessarily mean a midterm general election. There could instead be a swift realignment of forces and the formation of another coalition—one opposed to Indira Gandhi, Desai and the RSS.

But what would the new group be for? And even if it could agree on that, would it be able to burst through the strangling Indian bureaucracy to tackle the crisis? At week’s end no one knew the answers.

Peter Niesewand