The coalition experience

Print edition : February 13, 1999

The BJP strives to discuss the tenets of "coalition dharma" with its allies without learning the lessons from the past.

IT is difficult to understand certain assertions contained in the February 2 joint statement issued after the meeting of the Coordination Committee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in New Delhi. The statement, among other things, makes two important points regarding coalition politics. One, "the Congress party has never hidden its contempt for coalition and cooperative politics and its disdain for regional parties." Two, if the Congress(I) chose to destabilise the present setup at the Centre, "it will be a great setback to Indian democracy in general and to coalition politics in particular."

As observer of coalition politics in practice, particularly in Kerala, I find this statement unacceptable. Coalition politics has come to stay in Kerala. The signatories to the statement were either unaware of or chose to overlook the fact that Kerala has never had a single-party government since 1959, and that it was the Congress(I) that ushered in coalition politics in the country for the first time. All governments that have ruled Kerala since 1959 have been coalitions led either by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress(I), barring a few exceptions. These coalitions have been hailed as role models by several national leaders while pointing out the shortcomings at the Centre.

In the 1970s, the Congress(I) formed the Bombay Municipal Corporation with the support of the Shiv Sena. The Congress(I) worked out arrangements also with the Akalis in Punjab. The Congress(I)-led alliance in Kerala includes the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). "Disdain for regional parties" would not have brought the Congress(I) close to the IUML in Kerala. To say that the Congress(I) has contempt for coalitions is untenable. The Congress(I) was prepared to have an alliance with any party to gain power at any time and had a different explanation to offer each time. Probably, the signatories to the statement were oblivious of what has happened in the South. The BJP has never had a single seat in Kerala Assembly nor has it won a single Lok Sabha seat from Kerala.

It is the Congress(I) which sustained the Governments of Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral at the Centre. "Coalition dharma," which the statement speaks of, was not applicable in these cases as they were not coalitions: they were based only on an understanding.

The statement has also not taken into account the existence of a successful coalition government in West Bengal under the leadership of Jyoti Basu.

The statement observers that "the collective mandate that sustains the Central Government demands that we resolve the differences in the spirit of internal democracy and by scrupulously following the tenets of coalition dharma." It is coalition dharma that has sustained and still sustains coalition governments in Kerala. Scant regard for that "dharma" has become a bane of the BJP-led alliance at the Centre and the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP government in Gujarat. The failure "to resolve the differences in the spirit of internal democracy" has been a continuing problem for the BJP-led Government at the Centre. The utterances of Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma when they were removed from their posts and the circumstances that led to the non-inclusion of Sushma Swaraj in the Union Cabinet after the BJP's defeat in the Delhi Assembly elections can be cited as examples.

"Contempt for coalition and cooperative politics" would not have prompted the Congress(I) to extend support to a Government led by the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kerala in 1970. Later the Congress(I) joined the CPI-led Ministry. In 1967, the CPI(M) formed a coalition government with the cooperation of regional parties in Kerala. The IUML and the Kerala Congress became partners in the CPI(M)-led coalition. Later, when these parties returned to the Congress-led coalition, they were treated like prodigals returning home. There was no sign of contempt on either side. Which political party, including the BJP, does not follow this approach? Despite the coalition partners airing their grievances in public and issuing threats to the Government almost every day, the BJP shows no "disdain" for these parties, which have come to play an important role in national politics.

Therefore, it cannot be said that if the present ruling coalition at the Centre is destabilised it will be a setback to "democracy and coalition politics". Leaders of different national parties have admitted that single-party rule is a thing of the past and the future will see only coalition governments at the Centre.

Coalition governments of different hues and ideologies have been in power in the States and at the Centre and they were brought down through undemocratic means before their full terms were completed. Of course, the coalition dharma observed in Kerala and West Bengal has helped governments complete their terms. And democracy has survived along with coalition politics. If the Congress(I) was a pioneer in coalition politics, then E.M.S. Namboodiripad was its architect.

The joint statement appeals to all parties in the coalition to resolve their differences. The BJP should practice what it preaches. It has not been able to control the dissent in its own ranks. The statement continues: "Our coalition has not yet evolved to this basic standard." It is a frank and honest admission. The irony is that each partner extends it support and lends it stability, but continues to issue threats.

In other words, the statement is not an expression of solidarity by the alliance partners, but one of confession. The alliance partners insisted on naming the forces that defame the Central Government and make the BJP-led coalition unstable. The statement contended that "sometimes negative utterances and positions by certain elements perceived to be close to the nucleus of our coalition, the BJP, have also undermined the prestige of our Government."

All partners of the alliance have not signed the joint statement and do not agree with the formulations. Understand-ably so. The formulations in the statement reflect the BJP's inability to take the ground realities into consideration.

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