The first time a government was called a khichdi was in 1978. Indira Gandhi was referring to the Janata Party that had unseated her in post-Emergency elections and formed India’s first coalition government. Indira proved to be right, and in 1980 the khichdi was regurgitated by voters disgusted by the antics of its cooks who plotted and schemed like petty dictators. The only one to stand aloof from the kitchen was Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, who later became one of India’s greatest prime ministers. A three-term PM (1998-2004)—though two were short-lived —he is the only other three-term PM after Indira.
However, the difference was that Vajpayee’s governments were coalitions. The last one that lasted its term was subject to internal partner pressures. Some of the political leaders who are trying to forge an alliance for the 2019 elections against the Narendra Modi-led BJP were part of Vajpayee’s flock: Mamata Banerjee and N Chandrababu Naidu, who are both experienced bargainers.
The government, which the Vajpayee-led NDA defeated, was also a coalition. It was led by India’s Chanakya—Narasimha Rao. When he came to power in 1991, the country was broke. Armed with finance minister Manmohan Singh, Rao took India into the age of plenty that the country had never experienced before, even as he ran a minority coalition. Rao was the chef of not khichdi but of modern India, cooked with distinct regional power palates. He had succeeded where his predecessors failed by ruling for five years.
Before him there were seasonal Prime Ministers—V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral and Chandra Shekhar, who were political and economic disasters. The Manmohan Singh-led UPA coalition that succeeded Vajpayee ran into a conflict of compromises with its Left partner which disapproved of the Indo-US Nuclear deal. The Congress campaigned in 2009 on the energy plank and a modern cause got votes from majority rural India—a first. Bijli had power.
Today coalition politics has matured since it has powerful, coherent regional constituents at the national level. With Modi’s development slogan, Indian voters have come to recognise economics as an integral part of politics. The ambition of a new India sparked by the Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan coalitions had raised the bar with a fresh aspirational algorithm.
From coalition governance, regional parties are trying to forge consensus governments. But the Congress, which ran three coalitions, does not seem to have a place in it. In 1999, Vajpayee was asked what would happen if he lost the elections? He replied, “Then it will be ‘Agli bari, Atal Bihari’.” Unless the Congress performs well in the coming state elections, it will need the same optimism to dine at the Opposition high table where khichdi is the main dish.