Chaudhary Charan Singh: Stalwart farmer leader who was PM for 170 days

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has completed eight years in office, recently hinted that he was ready for a third term. Speaking virtually at a meeting in Bharuch where beneficiaries of various central government schemes were assembled, he said a “very senior” Opposition leader had once asked him what else was left for him to accomplish after becoming the PM twice. Modi said he would not rest till “100 per cent” coverage of government schemes was achieved in the country.

Modi, 71, is first PM so far to be born after Independence. In the course of over seven decades, the country has seen 15 Prime Ministers, over a journey marked with social, political and economic changes. The Indian Express looks at India’s parliamentary democracy through the tenures of its PMs.


He was born to a family of farmers and rose to occupy the country’s top elected position in 1979. But for Chaudhary Charan Singh, a popular farmer leader who went to become India’s sixth prime minister, the stay at the top was a short one.

Singh was born in the village of Noorpur in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district in 1902. He was first elected to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in 1937 from Chhaprauli. In June 1951, he became a state Cabinet minister — a stepping stone to his rise to the zenith of his political career. At the time, he was one of the Congress’s main leaders in UP. But dissatisfied with the direction of the party, Singh left the Congress to form the first non-Congress government in UP. He also formed the Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD). Singh served as UP chief minister twice — first, from April 3, 1967, to February 25, 1968; and second from February 18, 1970, to October 1, 1970. After that, he became more involved in national politics.

Chaudhary Charan Singh addressing a public meeting in Bhiwani, Haryana. (Express Archive)

In 1974, he merged his party with the Samyukta (United) Socialist Party to form the Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD). At the time, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister and an almost invincible political force. When Gandhi declared Emergency the following year, Singh, like other prominent Opposition leaders, was imprisoned for a year.

Following the revocation of Emergency, the BLD emerged as a crucial component of the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government that came to power in 1977. The Janata Party was formed that January year but merged with four Opposition parties — the Congress (Organisation), the BLD, the Jana Sangh, and the Socialist Party — after the elections in March. In the polls, the BLD got a majority by winning 295 of the 405 seats it contested. The Congress was routed, registering its worst performance since Independence as it won only 154 seats of the 492 it contested.

Chaudhary Charan Singh (right). (Express Archive)

Singh became the Union Home Minister, holding the portfolio from March 24, 1977, to July 1, 1978. With discord in the party increasing, Desai appointed Singh the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance on January 24, 1979. He remained in the post till July 16.

With internal fights showing no signs of abating, Desai stepped down as PM. The Janata Party split and the Janata Party (Secular) was formed. This was the beginning of the end of the Janata experiment. Singh staked his claim to form the government with the Congress’s support and was sworn in as prime minister on July 28, 1979.

Soon after assuming office, he addressed the nation and spelt out the challenges and priorities of his government. “I am speaking to you tonight as your first public servant … Poverty has to be eliminated and the basic necessities of life made available to every single citizen. Political leadership of the country must remember that nothing mocks our values and dreams more than the desperate struggles of our people for existence … Nothing could, therefore, be a more patriotic objective for our political leaders than to ensure that no child will go to bed hungry …”

Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh. (Express Archive)

He added, “Unemployment is on the increase. There cannot be a greater misery than those young men fully qualified and wanting gainful employment, find themselves idle.”

Singh could never prove his government’s majority on the floor of Parliament. Though the five-year term of the sixth Lok Sabha was to end in March 1981, President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy dissolved the House on August 22, 1979. Singh continued functioning as a caretaker PM till January 14, 1980. In all, he spent 170 days in office.

In the 1980 elections, Singh contested on a Janata Party (Secular) ticket from Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh and was re-elected to Parliament by defeating Ram Chanda Vikal of the Congress. Though his party won 41 seats and ended up as the second-largest group in Parliament, the Indira Gandhi-led Congress won the election in a landslide. Of the 41 seats of the JNP(S), a maximum of 29 came from Uttar Pradesh while the rest of the tally came from Bihar (five), Haryana (four), Rajasthan (two), and Odisha (one). The party failed to open its account in 14 states and Union Territories and 157 of its candidates lost their deposits.

Though Charan Singh was re-elected from Baghpat in the 1984 general elections held in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination — he defeated the Congress’s Mahesh Chand — his party, the Lok Dal, faced a crushing defeat. It won only three of the 171 seats it contested. The Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress swept to power by winning 404 seats.

India’s longest-serving prime ministers

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