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Are Coalition Governments Better Than Single Party Rule in The Indian Context?

In a discussion, Vrinda Gopinath put the same questions on coalition governments to two political scientists.
Representative image. Former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav with Rahul Gandhi during INDIA Bloc's rally in Delhi. Photo: X/@laluprasadrjd

If many in the world are shuddering today at the prospect of the return of Republican candidate Donald Trump as the next president of the United States after the elections to be held at the end of the year, consider this: today, the US government has gone all out to support Israel in the seven-month brutal war it has unleashed on Palestine, from sending shipments of arms and bombs that have pounded Palestine killing thousands of civilians, including children; sanctioning billions of dollars of arms sales to Israel; fiercely cracking down on peaceful student protests demanding divestment from Israel (which means withdrawing funds of university endowments that have been invested in companies linked to Israel) with student encampments in top dog universities, from MIT, Columbia, Harvard, and dozen others, were attacked by riot police who swooped down with tear gas, pepper bombs, batons, assaulting and arresting students inside campuses.

And this is under none other than the so-called liberal, Democrat President Joe Biden.

Do ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats blur when it comes to foreign policy, Israel, Islam and other pet hates so much so that in this well-entrenched two-party system, there has not been a candidate outside who has won a single state in a presidential system in the last 50 years? Are American voters stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea in a two-party system?

A Pew Research Centre report of 2022 in the US reveals that nearly four in 10 interviewed (39%) wished there were more political parties to choose from and supported having a greater choice of parties.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In India, as we hurtle towards the results of the ongoing general elections, which will be decided on June 4, one of the two dominating themes for voters to choose from is ‘strong leader Narendra Modi’ versus the ‘INDIA coalition of regional parties.’ In fact, a Pew Research Centre report of 2023 revealed that a high of 85% of respondents here believed military rule or rule by an authoritarian leader would be good for the country – India’s share was the highest among the 24 countries surveyed.

Yet, while there’s a collective groan at the prospect of a coalition government at the Centre, because of its tumultuous history, after 10 years of ‘strongman Modi’, the INDIA coalition has not been cast away entirely, in fact, it seems to captivate people desperate for an alternative idea of governance.

So, is a coalition government the right way to go to represent a truly plural, diverse country like India, with its myriad languages, distinct cultures, regional contrasts, etc? Due to the lack of a proportional representation system where such diversity could have been accurately represented, are coalition governments the answer to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system that is here today?

To talk deeply about coalition governments, The Wire spoke to two academics Professor K.K. Kailash of the University of Hyderabad, who has written extensively on federal coalitions and regional parties; and Professor Neelanjan Sircar, visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, who has worked on state-level elections through data work and ethnographic methods which he underlines below.

Here are the excerpts from the roundtable discussion:

Why does the idea of coalition governments bring the spectre of instability and unreliability?

Kailash: Despite the early experiences of unsteadiness, coalitions have always gone one step ahead over a period of time and become much better than in the past. Every subsequent coalition sorted out shortcomings, and have rightfully recognised there will be two types of tensions or pressures: one, tension about competing with each other and, two, the need to cooperate with each other.

Coalition partners have recognised that they have to keep a balance between the two pulls, and also be aware who they are competing with outside. I think coalitions have learned over a period of time and it’s been a conscious learning process, as leaders have articulated after a coalition government has fallen – in 1989, for instance, when the V.P. Singh government fell, Singh admitted that there was a need to have more consultations within the coalition and outside, for it to sustain.

Sircar: If you begin with the Janata Party in the mid-70s, it was a period in which parties across different ideological social groups came together against Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, but soon significant differences emerged leading to its collapse in three years. By the late 1980s, the Congress began to crumble and you ended up having governments that were quickly dismissed – the V.P. Singh and Chandrashekhar governments were weaker because there wasn’t one party which had enough seats to be able to protect itself when under threat. Neither was there a strong leader or set of leaders who could command a coalition government.

This changed in 1999 with Vajpayee and his NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government, then came Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi in 2004 with their two UPA (United Progressive Alliance) governments, and all three completed their full term. Allies could have jumped sides and brought down these governments but the difference was the power both the BJP and Congress leaders and parties commanded, and coalition partners saw benefit in keeping the governments afloat and staying in power.

Also read: Three Myths About Coalition Governments You Shouldn’t Believe

Were coalition governments successful in making a difference with effective governance, in passing laws etc?

Kailash: The V.P. Singh government set up the Interstate Council under Article 263, recommended by the Sarkaria Commission, which had found that problems in Indian federalism came from a lack of consultation and dialogue between the Centre and states. It was found that the interstate council worked whenever regional political parties had a major role to play at the national level. If you were to look at the website of the Interstate Council, the maximum number of times the council met was in the United Front government, which was not led by the Congress but was supported by it; it met only once in the NDA government under Vajpayee and maybe once during the UPA government.

Centre-state relations have had a very good run when you had coalition governments – let’s take the Vajpayee government, in foreign policy for example, which is in the domain of the central government. Yet, Vajpayee invited the Akali Dal to be part of foreign policy talks when he visited Lahore as Punjab is a bordering state; similarly, Jyoti Basu as chief minister of West Bengal participated in the Teesta river water sharing agreement with Bangladesh; Tamil Nadu was invited for talks with Sri Lanka.

Sircar: The nineties was a period of extraordinary churn — there was caste mobilisation, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and governments were falling, but there was a continuity to what was happening with these governments. A lot of difficult legislation was passed at the time, reforms around economic liberalisation, later on, reforms around political decentralisation, all started coming into play. These very difficult reforms were being made by coalition governments, from the 73rd and 74th Amendments which brought in panchayati raj and municipal systems through state governments, and this continued on to the early years of Vajpayee as well.

What kind of mechanism works in a coalition government? After all, coalitions are about a consensus of diverse interests as opposed to being bludgeoned into submission by a brute majority government.

Kailash: It was started primarily by the Vajpayee government, the mechanism called the Group of Ministers (GoM), but was taken up a lot more by the Manmohan Singh government. It was basically a set of cabinet ministers, sometimes even state chief ministers were involved, even the governor, when they took decisions on particular issues. Let’s say telecom regulation – If it was a DMK telecom minister, there would also be members from the NCP, RJD and other parties too, so there was a wide consensus on policy formulation. At the highest level, the prime minister himself met the leader of the main supporting parties; for example, Manmohan Singh had a great rapport with the CPI(M)’s Har Kishen Surjit in the first UPA government, so you had multiple levels at which dialogue took place and tensions were nipped in the bud.

So this idea of policy paralysis is not completely true because they had great decision-making mechanisms which took hard decisions. And there was the CMP or Common Minimum Programme which set the baseline for policy making.

Sircar: Paradoxically, the Modi government has not been able to take difficult decisions like the UPA coalition’s economic liberalisation reforms, as the former had to back down from pushing the farmer laws. Because being in a coalition government means the person at the top does not have to have an appeal nationally, like say, Mamata Banerjee, who knows she gets the lion’s share of her seats from West Bengal. In her political calculation, she needs to make sure she’s not going to lose seats in her state, so what happens in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu or UP would be the function of her coalition partners.

It is very different from what Modi faces if he takes a wrong decision, it affects his power that he accrues to himself from every part of the country. In a very strange sort of way, having to appeal to all of the masses constrains a political leader from being able to make very difficult choices.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party's Central Election Committee meeting for the Gujarat assembly elections in Delhi. Credit: Twitter/BJP4Gujarat

File photo. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah at the party’s Central Election Committee meeting for the Gujarat assembly elections in Delhi. Credit: Twitter/BJP4Gujarat

However, in a coalition government, you cannot have the kind of centralising force that both Modi and Amit Shah have brought into the NDA, including eating up its allies whether in Maharashtra and Bihar – and that’s good for federal consensus. It worked very well in UPA-I because in terms of expanding the state, it reached poor segments of society from NREGA to the rights agenda. These had genuine impacts. So policies are important, as they work like glue. When you see a policy is that popular, all of the pressures of keeping coalition partners together, the infighting, sort of withers away because allies have an incentive to reap the electoral and political benefits.

Why have coalitions got this reputation of every ally only wanting to grab as much for themselves even though corruption dogs every government, including single-party rule? Is it valid?

Kailash: UPA-II did complete its full term but yes, there were all these corruption charges and it weakened the government, but remember the biggest scam, the 2G scam turned out to be a notional loss.

It is important, therefore, to keep institutions independent of politics, from the Election Commission, Finance Commission, the CAG, etc; also the media, the Constitution has a fabulous set of checks and balances which takes care of any pitfalls. It was the CAG chief Vinod Rai, at the time of UPA II who came up with this idea of a notional loss. He got influenced by the mahaul (uproar), at that time, whipped up by the media, I think it was a sort of a planned attack on the government, it had very little to do with the coalition.

However, the coalition also needs to be more effectively communicating to clear the air, you can’t just sit back and let it overtake you. Also, 10 years is a time in government when anti-incumbency would kick in so that’s another factor that could have failed UPA-II but I think the coalition as such cannot be blamed for what happened.

Sircar: Every party in India has its share of corruption but when you have a coalition government and you are necessarily doing business to keep your coalition partners together, whatever it takes to grease the wheels between coalition partners can create a perception of corruption. And in UPA II, the perception of corruption did a lot of damage.

Regional parties have all along been vehicles for certain regional elites, often framed around a single person or a small set of people who negotiate for the entire party. For what role could a JDU play at the national level unless it was compromising and making accommodations vis-a-vis the Centre if it’s going to be involved, where the state is also taken seriously and you can also contribute to the national policy, it is not a situation where states have fared badly.

The pound-of-flesh logic is not so bad if you see things from the perspective of your state. It is a government that is disproportionately invested in winning in that state, and in so far as it’s making accommodations at the national level may do so for its own personal benefit, but those benefits will also disproportionately accrue to that particular state. For instance, Mamata Bennerjee and Lalu Prasad Yadav as railway ministers benefitted their states and that is valid.

Can ideology be a glue to keep coalitions intact as they do in some countries in the West like Sweden?

Kailash: Most parts of Western Europe have had the coalition experience for a much longer period than us. Also, they have a proportional representation system so coalitions are natural, their politics is born into dialogue, conversation, and consensus right from the campaign itself. We have the plural, first-past-the-post system where it’s a more adversarial system, and it’s about winning for each party. The scope for dialogue is very low in our system, it is executive-dominated.

In the proportional representation system, parties sell themselves in such a way that it becomes a sort of a median player where everybody would want to ally with you, whereas in our system, you don’t need to be attractive to others. Only when it’s highly competitive that you attempt to be attractive, like what the BJP did in 1999 when it went all out to woo allies by setting aside contentious issues like the Ram temple, Article 370, etc, but the BJP under Modi completely switched back in 2014, 2019.
In the West, they have put in place coordination mechanisms, steering committees, etc over a period of time.

Sircar: In the US for example, you have a bipolar system in principle because you have ideological consolidation – so, if you’re more left, you should be voting for Democrats; if you’re more right, you should vote for Republicans – that’s the general belief rightly or wrongly. In India, we don’t have that kind of ideological consolidation even in terms of welfare, policy or capital issues. Instead, we have ethno-nationalism where they say I’m pro-Hindu or pro-caste, which is not ideology. So descriptive representation, identity-based representation, both in your linguistic identity and your caste identity, becomes far more important, and you have winners and losers spatially. The BJP say, got 60-70% from six states, Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat; it’s a spatial concentration of support and the sheer lack of support in certain other parts of the country yet policies are made by representatives disproportionately representing only one part of the country.

Are coalition governments the way ahead for a central government to be truly equitable, pluralistic and democratic? How do you make coalitions more robust?

Kailash: Apart from setting up mechanisms for dialogue and consensus, from a CMP, to steering and coordination committees, there should also be a method to keep leaders in touch with grassroots, who are not necessarily in government, much like the NAC under Sonia Gandhi in UPA; there could be a Sharad Pawar or someone of such stature.

Right now, the INDIA alliance seems to have gone back to a period where allies just have a seat-sharing arrangement like at the time of VP Singh, and the agenda is singularly about saving democracy.
If the India alliance comes together, it should do what successful coalitions have done in the past – put in programmes culled out from the manifestos of the various allies. It can be business as usual. As for strengthening the alliance, it’s important to give back autonomy and independence to constitutional institutions that they deserve, from the Supreme Court, EC, CAG etc.

As for regional parties in a coalition, they are all acting within their rights of having their own agenda like any other party, like BJP and Congress. One cannot institutionalise how coalitions must politically handle themselves but it has to do more with political acumen and being two steps ahead.

Sircar: Paradoxically, given the massive rise of inequality and farmer distress, this is when the Left parties should have been the most powerful and yet they have totally withered away. Devoid of an ideological glue between citizen and party or parties and coalitions, nothing prevents a candidate or coalition ally from jumping from one side to the other.

However, true decentralisation is crucial for a certain kind of federation, and it must go beyond the state level too – putting in mechanisms that ensure certain kinds of fiscal and policy power to the panchayat, and municipal councils, rather than to MLAs and MPs. It would develop an accountability link between citizens and politicians. Overnight you would get rid of money power and go to people who can actually enact policy.

Federalism is not about giving power to autocratic leaders at the state level versus autocratic leaders at the central level, that should not be the bargain. It should be about true decentralisation.

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