Coalition time

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

The book takes the reader through the past and the present of the Indian political scene and offers more than a peep into the future.

IN the early 1940s, when I was studying in the upper primary classes, one of the topics for discussion during the weekly literary and debating period used to be: Which is better, village life or city life? The advantages and disadvantages of both would be discussed rather inconclusively until some smart kid would say, Actually, both are better! There is a debate of that sort in the country today: Which is better, single-party rule or coal ition rule? In principle, much can be said on each, and is also being said. But how do the two fare actually? What has been the historical experience? What are the criteria to evaluate the two forms of governance?

These are the questions discussed in Divided We Stand Indian in a Time of Coalitions by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Shankar Raghuraman. Both the authors are journalists, the latter the Senior Editor of The Times of India, New Delhi. The book, therefore, is not a dry academic treatise, but a very readable, informative, though avoidably repetitive, account, which stands out for its blunt assessment of the leading personalities of the Indian political scene, particularly those who are currently at the helm of affairs. Though the book does not claim to be a historical work, the reader is taken through the past and present of the Indian scene, at the Centre and in the States, with more than a peep into the future.

Essentially, it is an analysis of the present. The present begins with 2004, which witnessed the 14th general elections in the country, but the first elections contested by two major coalitions, one led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the other by the Congress. From that vantage point, take a look into the past. For the first 30 years since Independence, or for 25 years since the first general elections in 1952, the country had experienced only single-party governance at the centre.

In the 1977 general elections post-Emergency, the Centre had its first experience of multi-party governance. This did not last long. In the 1980 and 1984 elections, a single party was again given the mandate, in the latter with the largest majority that a single party ever had in the Lok Sabha. But that, ironically, was also the end of single-party majority, though from 1991 to 1996 a single party was in power, but without a parliamentary majority. Hence, in a way, since the 1989 general elections the country has been experimenting with various shades of multi-party governance.

The decade from 1989 to 1999 witnessed about five years of instability from 1989 to 1991 first, and then from 1996 to 1998 and five years of stable rule under a single party. The 13th general elections of 1999 were the first to bring to power a pre-election multi-party coalition that stayed on for its full term of five years. The 2004 general elections saw yet another step towards coalition governance with two major coalitions fighting to come to power. Whether the coalition that managed to come to power will complete its term is an open question now, but if it does, it will further strengthen the possibilities of coalition stability.

National Front leaders

What then is in store for the future? There are four distinct possibilities: coalition governments that are stable; coalition governments that are unstable; single-party governments that are stable; and single-party governments that are not stable. It may then appear that whichever is stable is desirable. A widely held view is that even with multiple objectives of governance, a stable single-party regime with another single party as an alternative is the ideal. But that is an inadequately examined opinion. Is it possible that coalitions with stability or even without stability can become the preferred option? That is the legitimate, though obviously the more difficult, question worth pursuing. The significance of the book is that it opens up this question and provides criteria to probe it.

One issue can be settled without much argument. Are coalitions inherently unstable? The experience of West Bengal in the past three decades shows that coalition governments can be as stable as single-party governments. And Keralas experience indicates that two coalitions can emerge over a period, providing the possibilities of stability and periodic change.

But a criticism of some substance is that in a parliamentary system of governance, coalition regimes tend to weaken the basic principle of the collective responsibility of the Cabinet (the executive wing) to Parliament (the legislative wing) because Ministers of the Cabinet turn out to be the nominees of their parties, and not selected by the Prime Minister.

The problem becomes more acute when the coalition consists of a large number of small parties as is often the case. The issue is not only the weakening of collective responsibility: often it becomes the basis of absence of ministerial responsibility itself.

However, while coalitions can let down democracy in this manner, it is important to remember that single-party regimes can easily reduce parliament to a nonentity and take the path towards democratically elected dictatorship logically strange, but in practice not a distant possibility. The fact is that the debate of single-party regimes versus multi-party coalitions cannot be settled on these grounds. The authors suggest a set of criteria to evaluate the performance of regimes and provide something of an audit also, which interested readers may wish to examine. I shall concentrate on the deeper issues they deal with.

A major one is to consider whether the recent instances of coalitions, especially at the Centre, are early pathological indications of the failure of democracy in the country or clear signs of the maturing of democracy. The authors take the latter position and argue it convincingly. The basis of their position is that India is a vast and vastly diverse country and that it is unnatural to expect a single political party to accommodate such diversity of language, caste and social customs, economic conditions and much more. These factors found their reflection in the countrys political processes from the early days of Independence.

The evidence is two-fold. The first is that at the level of the States there has always been a diversity of political parties, and while coalition governments emerged at the Centre only some three decades after Independence, coalitions started functioning in the States from day one. The very first general elections held according to the new Constitution and on the basis of universal adult franchise resulted in a non-Congress coalition government in what was then PEPSU (Patiala and East Punjab States Union).

In two other States, Madras (then consisting of most of todays Tamil Nadu, parts of what subsequently became Andhra Pradesh, and the Malabar region of todays Kerala) and Travancore-Cochin, the Congress, which did not win a majority of seats in the respective State Assemblies, formed governments with the support of minor parties. And, of course, after the 1967 elections many States came to have coalition governments.

The second part of the evidence is related. The Congress as a political party has tried to maintain the umbrella character that it had during the freedom movement and succeeded for a while. The authors put it thus: The Congress could rightfully claim that it was the only political party that not only represented all sections of the population but also had a base in virtually every single village across the length and breadth of the country. The Congress could also rightly contend that it was unique among political parties in that it afforded an opportunity to all sections to put forward their claims and points of view.

With regional parties coming to power and gaining experience in governance, they have been succeeding in getting the Congress to fold its umbrella. The clearest example of this process has been in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress has not been in power since 1967 and where it is today only a patronised junior to the two regional parties that have been holding power more or less alternatively since then. The climax of this regionalisation of political processes in the country came in 1996 when neither of the two national parties was in a position to form the government at the Centre.

The leaders of the powerful regional parties none of them had even 50 members in the Lok Sabha with a strength of 543 seized the opportunity. They prevented the larger of the two national parties (BJP) from coming to power, anointed one among themselves (then a Chief Minister in one of the States) as the Prime Minister to head a coalition called the United Front, and forced the Congress to extend support from outside. Indeed, while the United Front was in power at the Centre from June 1996 to February 1998, the country had something of a Chief Ministers Raj.

That was a step forward in this country, which is a federation of States, but it was a learning process too. For, the regional leaders soon realised that a federation of States as such cannot function at the Centre. The Centre needed one large party with a notional All-India character. Hence when the United Front collapsed in 1998 and the BJP emerged as the largest single party, but without a majority of its own, in subsequent elections the same year, some regional leaders were more than willing to align themselves with that party, which they had shunned two years earlier, and become partners in a post-election coalition.

This was their way of retaining some clout at the Centre. And when that post-election coalition appeared shaky, a year later in 1999, a pre-election coalition of the BJP and some regional parties won a majority, formed the government and stayed on for a full term the first coalition at the Centre to do so.

By 2004, the Congress and some regional leaders formed their own pre-election coalition and succeeded in forming the government. This has been a learning process too and an institutionalisation of the States presence at the Centre, which cannot easily be reversed. It has been a churning process but has certainly strengthened the federal character of the polity and the country.

Way back in 1983, I had seen this coming. Writing on Indian Society Past Trends and Future Prospects, I had said: The eighties will see the end of single-party domination throughout the country. What will take its place is not yet clear. Coalition government at the Centre is a possibility. A single party being voted to power at the Centre on the basis of understandings with regional parties at the State level is a further possibility. This will call for a re-examination and redefinition of the character of the federal system (reproduced at page 106 of Growth and Justice, OUP, 1992; see also the discussion of the regionalisation of the polity from page 103 onwards).

The learning process must continue. Regionalisation can be considered a positive aspect only if it enables the governments and, in fact, politics too, to respond to the true aspirations of the people at large. The authors point out that regionalism in India is based on a wide range of considerations reflected in the nature and character of the regional political parties. Linguistic fervour has been the basis of some regional parties as in Tamil Nadu.

The Akali Dal in Punjab has been based on religious and cultural considerations. The Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh emerged to protect regional aspirations and sentiments. The Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar arose in response to Mandalisation. The Bahujan Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh was meant initially to champion the cause of Dalits. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, mainly in West Bengal and Kerala, have strong ideological moorings.

Such diversity is nothing unnatural given the diversity and variety of the country. The crucial question is whether regional parties, while being committed to their special concerns, are using politics to satisfy the basic needs and promote the basic rights of the people of the region. A major transformation of the polity of the country is necessary for this process, which must involve all political parties, national and regional. The question is whether parties will become inclusive in terms of fulfilling the basic needs of all people, responding to the human rights of all people. This is indeed a tall order.

Coalition governments, more than single-party governments, can be instrumental in moving towards this objective because the coming together of parties based on different principles and objectives raises the question of what they have in common, can have in common, and what they will strive to achieve together. The drafting of common minimum programmes assumes great significance in this context because it makes it necessary for political parties to search for the rationale of their identities and to spell out their commitments.

But the task cannot be left to the parties themselves or those who have been or expect to be elected through them as peoples representatives. Pressure from the people particularly those who are currently disadvantaged on social and economic grounds on parties to articulate their policies and audit their performance must become a reality. This is already happening to some extent. The overthrow of the over-confident National Democratic Alliance in the 2004 elections was a clear example.

Another example is the manner in which those who are threatened with the loss of their livelihood opportunities are fighting back governments that put forward development in the abstract as justification for it. To make the empowerment of the people possible and to ensure that people, and not rulers, are the masters form the essential political agenda for the years ahead. The authors rightly recognise it. It is certainly a huge challenge. Coalitions, however, are arguably better equipped to face up to the challenge than any single party in India at the moment. Even in the immediate future, one may add.

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