Pre 1989 Coalition: Third Front

Third Front in Indian politics refers to various alliances formed by smaller parties at various points of time since 1989 to offer a third option to Indian voters, challenging the Indian National Congress (INC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

    V.P. Singh, who had served as the Finance Minister first and then as the Defence Minister in the Rajiv
    Gandhi government, resigned from the post of Defence Minister after fall out with Rajiv Gandhi over an enquiry into HDW submarine (these submarines had been bought in 1981 when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister of the Country) scandal, which had broken out in 1987. After his resignation, the Bofors scandal broke out. V .P. Singh, then, left the Congress party and used both these scandals to led a crusade against corruption and the Congress party.

    national front government V.P. Singh

    In the same year V.P. Singh along with his associates formed Jan Morcha, which along with BJP and left parties began forming anti-congress political bloc . Thereafter he formed the National Front (NF), along with some regional parties in August 1988.

    On 11 October 1988, Janata dal was formed with the merger of Jan Morcha, Congress(s), Janta and Lok Dal to contest elections against Congress.

    An agreement was reached between BJP and V.P. Singh led NF, according to which both BJP and NF agreed not to contest each other in around 85% of seats, and a similar arrangement was made with communist parties for a smaller number of seats. The collaboration between various parties, however, was not on ideological front but on anti-Congress stance and this reason hampered the smooth running of coalition , which formed the government after the elections of 1989.

    Election of 1989

    • Year of 1989 marks the end of Congress domination in Indian political system. Congress failed to get majority in general elections of 1989 and it was the first elections to the Lok Sabha since independence in which no single party won a majority.
    • The Congress, despite being the single largest party in the elections of 1989, restrained from forming a coalition government and chose to sit as an opposition party in the parliament. V.P. Singh was sworn in as head of National Front government, with the outside support of Left and BJP. It was the second non-Congress government after independence.

    Beginning of Coalition Government

    • Although the first coalition government was formed by Morarji Desai in 1977, the elections of 1989 marked the beginning of multi-party era in Indian politics which continued till 2014, when Narendra Modi led BJP secured the majority of seats.
    • The multi-party era, which dominated the Indian politics thereafter, was a result of emergence of several parties and decline of the Congress in such a way that one or two parties did not get most of the votes. An important feature of the period from 1989 to 2014 was the crucial role played by the regional parties in forming and sustaining the ruling alliances at the centre.

    Events during the National Front Government

    The running of government was not smooth as a large part of the time and energy was spent on resolving internal differences amongst the coalition partners. The ideological differences and conflicting ambitions amongst the members of the coalition came to the forefront from the beginning.

    Chandra Shekhar opposed the appointment of V.P. Singh as Prime Minster. Devi Lai who was sworn as Deputy Prime Minister, was disliked by most party members. Later, Devi Lai was dismissed and he gave a call for a big peasant rally on 9th august 1990, to show his political strength Rattled by this threat and aiming to divert attention, on 7th August 1990, V.P. Singh announced the implementation of recommendations of the Mandal commission in the Parliament.

    The government was unable to bring any change in the conditions in Punjab and situation in Kashmir deteriorated with time. Advani’s declaration of his plans for rath yatra inflamed the communal passions and set the tone for future communal tensions to follow. He started rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya to lay the foundation stone for Ram Mandir but was arrested at Samastipur in Bihar, which led to withdrawal of BJP support to the central government.

    Mandal Commission

    Central government in 1978, set up a committee under Bindeshwari Prasad Mandal to look into and recommend ways to identify the ‘backward classes’ and end their backwardness. This was the second time since independence that the government had appointed such a commission. The commission undertook surveys and finally submitted a report in 1980, but its recommendations could not be implemented as the Janta government had fallen by that time.

    Mandal Commission


    • The commission advised that “backward classes” should be understood to mean “backward castes”. This suggestion was based on the assumption that backward classes belonged to the lower strata in caste hierarchy. Commission in the course of its surve, also found that backward classes had very low presence in public services and educational institutes.
    • Thus , it recommended 27 percent of seats in educational institutions and government jobs for backward classes. It also made other recommendations like land reforms to improve conditions of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). National front government, in 1990, decided to implement one of the recommendations of Mandal commission pertaining to reservations for OBCs in jobs in the central government and its undertakings.


    • The government’s decision to implement one of the recommendations, led to widespread dismay and protests from political parties as well as by public, as unlike in the case of SCs and STs, there were no conclusive proofs of backwardness of OBCs. The scheme of caste based reservation was rejected by protesting students. CPM instead advocated economic criteria. Rajiv Goswami, a student of Delhi University self-immolated himself in protest of the government action.


    • Many forward castes formed caste based associations and caste identities came to fore once again. It was a socially divisive decision which pitted one caste against the other in the name of social justice. Intense debates on the reservation to the OBCs made people from those communities, included as OBCs, more conscious of their identity. This helped those who wanted to mobilize these groups in politics. Many caste based groups emerged which sought better opportunities for the OBCs in both education and employment arena.
    • After the acceptance of this recommendation of Mandal commission, the overall quota increased to 49.5 percent. Later, it was challenged in Supreme Court, which upheld the decision to implement recommendation in the “Indira Sawhney case” as known by the name of one of the litigants in the case.
    • V.P. Singh government failed to get any political advantage from this move and next year, it lost its majority in the parliament after BJP withdrew its support on Ayodhya issue.


    • The controversy generated by the recommendations of the Mandal commission has obfuscated many issues which need a deeper analysis. There is no doubt that the main recommendations and the demand for their implementation must be supported from the viewpoint of democratisation
      of Indian society.
    • These recommendations, however, have been criticised for the use of the caste/community criteria to analyse backwardness. The backward people are closely tied into the caste or community that they were born into, connected to the work they do and the cultural and traditional practices which they still follow in a structure that has passed down for centuries. This aspect of reality is forgotten by those who put forward a more progressive sounding argument – that only economic criteria should be used for reservations.
    • On one hand are the critics who are against caste as a criterion. On the other, are those who voice an unqualified support for the commission’s recommendations as being revolutionary in their sweep. Somehow, both fail to observe the real base and limitations of the commission’s approach and recommendations.
    • The undemocratic nature of Indian society lies not merely in the restrictions on our Fundamental Rights or their nonimplementation, but is connected to the economic and politicalstructureof our society. For, without basic amenities to a decent life, the Fundamental Rights themselves cannot be enjoyed. In India, land is concentrated in a few hands. Industry too is highly concentrated in the hands of the top
      business houses. The caste system operates in a way that social and economic power is monopolised by a small proportion of the population.
    • Scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs live mainly in villages, owning none or little land. Many of them are forced to sell their labour in order to survive. Some of themcarry out their traditional occupations still in conditions of servitude to the rich. They command no social prestige, nor do they have a political voice except as vote banks. In the cities, most of them are found in the unorganised
      sector working as labourers in petty trades, or carrying out their traditional occupations, while the well-paid, secure, government jobs and other professions are the monopoly of higher castes.
    • It is in the context of this structure of our society that we have to evaluate the recommendations and accept their limitations. The recommendations centre around reservation of 27% of all central government jobs or OBCs. The campaigns for the implementation of the Mandal commission recommendations have also focussed only on this demand. Therefore, though there are other recommendations in the report, for instance, land reforms, cooperatives for artisans, etc. they have not been discussed much and the main debate, of both proponents and opponents, has centred around the reservation of jobs and seats in educational institutions.
    • But the implementation of these recommendations does not tackle the roots of backwardness in our society. The very criteria, which were used to define backwardness, like high incidence of manual labour, illiteracy, lack of drinking water sources, etc. are real problems and they cannot be resolved through the implementation of job reservations. The backwardness of these castes and communities, as pointed out before, is rooted in the very socio-economic structure of hierarchical relationships at the village level. Without addressing those, backwardness and poverty cannot be eliminated.
    • The implementation of radical land reforms requires the participation and mobilization of people themselves. A mobilization that cuts across caste lines to include the vast majority of the scheduled castes, tribes and others. Without this mobilization such recommendations, implemented from above can (as has been so far) only be distorted to benefit a few; thus, negating the very process of democratization.
    • Reservations, though necessary, can help only a few members of the backward castes. However, reservations were important to counter the upper caste monopoly of high status, white collar jobs and professions, and the competition that the backward castes had to face from these better off communities/groups. Moreover, reservation of jobs has given a thrust to those, who have already passed school education and aspire to study further as reservations for scheduled castes has done. But limited expansion of these jobs due to the slow growth of our economy, shall limit the chances of even a majority of the educated, getting them.
    • The wider task of fighting backwardness still remains. It includes social and economic aspects and only through the peoples struggles to solve these basic questions can the true democratization of our society be completed.

    National Commission for Backward Classes

    • Pursuant to the directions of Supreme Court, the government of India enacted the National Commission for Backward Classes Act, 1993 (Act No. 27 of 1993) for setting up a Commission at national level viz. “National Commission for Backward Classes” as a permanent body.
    • This Commission had the responsibility and the power to consider requests for inclusion in the lists of backward classes , and complaints of over-inclusion or underinclusion. In the process, some of the communities that were in one list, and not in the other, were not included. Those who were in neither list, also came up. A number of them were rejected. The Commission advises the government and the government invariably complies with the Commission’s advice, because the law says that the advice of the Commission is ordinarily binding on the government, which is what the Supreme Court, also laid down.
    • Recently, the Union Cabinet ‘s decision followed demands for constitutional status for the National Commission for Backward Classes, in order to allow it to hear the grievances of OBCs in the manner in which the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes do. The latter two are already Constitutional bodies and not statutory entities unlike national commission for backward classes

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