Coalition Politics in India - History, Problems and Prospects

Coalitions have almost invariably been associated with instability and focus on petty politics rather than actual governance. This article tries to refute this claim. In the beginning, a brief history of coalitions in India has been given. Then an attempt has been made to point out the areas where coalitions are better than an absolute majority by a single party. The problems of coalitions and ways to solve them also form parts of our discussion.

A brief political history of independent India – our experience with coalitions

For a long, long time after independence, Congress dominance in the country was almost unchallenged. Granted, there were a few exceptions (most notably Kerala in 1957) when the Congress failed to capture the government but overall the period immediately after independence saw what Rajni Kothari termed as the 'Congress System' – politics in which the Congress occupied the central position. And why should it not be so? After all, the contribution of the Congress in the freedom struggle was universally acknowledged. And riding on the popularity of the 'People's Prince' Pandit Nehru, Congress was invincible.

A phase came around 1967 when this system was challenged. Two Congress Prime Ministers had died in quick succession and the opposition had decided to come together under the banner of 'Non-Congressism'. Although Congress was able to save its position in the center, it saw massive debacles in the states. At the state level, Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (Joint Legislative Parties) consisting of a motley crowd of parties were able to form an alternative to the Congress. These alliances which were almost purely opportunistic predictably did not last long. And anyway, the Congress was soon reinforced under the leadership of Indira Gandhi (for better or for worse, I won't say). Coalition politics would have to wait until 1977 to make a comeback.

India saw its first stint with a national emergency in 1975. The atrocities and excesses that followed (especially in North India) dealt the biggest possible dent to its popularity the Congress could ever imagine. Simultaneously a new party, by the name of Janata Party was being formed. This was only nominally a party. In reality, this was formed by the coming together of a number of parties including Vajpayee's Jana Sangh and Charan Singh's Bharatiya Lok Dal as well as, of course, Morarjee Desai's Congress (O). Thus although nominally the Janata Party was a single political party, it has to be in fact considered India's first coalition government at the center.

That first experience wasn't very fruitful. The Janata Party was together only as far as pursuing revenge against Indira was concerned. When it came to policy matters, no consensus could be built. All of the constituent leaders were intent on displaying their power to ensure that they ended up with the position of the next Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister or whatever new position might be created.

It was probably the fear of a divided and weak government that led Indira to power in the next elections. Of course, in 1984, Congress under Rajeev broke all records, grabbing almost three-fourth of all seats. It was in 1989 that the second and longer stint of coalition politics began in the country. VP Singh stitched together an almost unlikely coalition, with the name of National Front. The BJP and the Communists offered 'outside support' with the sole purpose of preventing a Congress re-entry. But ingenious though this combination was, it didn't last long as the BJP soon went its own way (after having created a lot of havoc of course). Since then until 2014, we have seen either coalitions or minority governments. During this period, it was as if the coalitions were an unshakeable part of our polity.

A criticism of coalitions

In 2014, Narendra Modi's BJP utilized effective campaign strategies and the anti-incumbency against the ruling party to form the first government with a complete majority since Rajeev Gandhi's era. Apparently, the era of coalitions was put on a pause. In 2019, the Lok Sabha elections were fought by the ruling party on two main planks (apart from the usual rhetoric of development). One was the plank of nationalism, which in post-Pulwama India, was an inevitability. The second was the plank of a strong government, i.e. a government which enjoyed a complete majority on its own and which could effectively carry out 'tough reforms' for the betterment of the country.

That campaign, run in public meetings and continued on social media platforms and television screens, reflected the prevalent bias against coalitions. Coalitions were seen as bringing ruin upon the country. As coalition partners bargained for better ministerial posts and struggled for survival, the governance machinery was left bereft of any energy. Appeasement of the coalition partners took a priority and people's welfare was left behind. And think of all the expenses that have to be incurred due to premature elections due to a coalition breaking down. Isn't it better to have one strong party that would result in stability and which could focus all its energies on governance?

Why coalitions are better

This was exactly how I had thought before the elections. Mind you, I was not supportive of the hints of majoritarianism that the ruling party had started exhibiting in its first term. But I was more disgusted by the opportunistic nature of the coalitions that had started developing in various parts of the country (especially in UP) where parties who were historically rivals came together for the sole purpose of preventing a party from grabbing power. Somehow I had equated coalitions with instability and a 'strong' government with good governance.

Sad as it might be, I was wrong. In a country like India, coalitions are perhaps necessary. The coalition involves a coming together of diverse opinions. Various parties, each with their diverse ideologies, come together in a single government. Necessarily there will be compromises. The result will be that no single party will be able to unilaterally impose its ideology over the entire country. People have often argued that it was Vajpayee's moderate nature that toned down the 'Hindutva' forces even as BJP completed a full five-year term from 1999-2004. That was probably true to an extent, but I think that it was also due to the fact that Vajpayee was heading a coalition of an unbelievably large number of parties. To carry along all those parties required the BJP to tone down certain less agreeable portions of its ideology.

Just imagine what would have happened in case Mr. Modi was heading a coalition in today's date. His ministers would never have the courage to go ahead and garland those involved in mob lynching. Actions against those involved in atrocities on Dalits would have probably been stricter.

Counter-intuitive as it might sound, coalitions do not prevent reforms. Just think back to 1991, when India embarked on what was its greatest tryst with economic reforms since independence. Almost the entire makeup of the economic system was modified. Was this the handiwork of a 'strong' government? Far from it, the PM struggled to keep his government alive in parliament while the Finance Minister was a soft-spoken intellectual who looked more suited to academia than the rough and tumbles of politics. Yet, were not the reforms implemented well? That one example from three decades ago should be enough to wash away claims that coalitions and minority governments cannot take bold initiatives. The only thing that matters is whether or not the politicians have a sufficient amount of willpower.

The only drawback that coalitions still have is that of political instability. A coalition often tumbles at the first available possibility. Conflicts with coalition partners can well produce mid-term elections. Anyone who has lived through the '90s knows what I am talking about. The cost of repeated elections is probably too much for us.

What we can do

To prevent such an unstable situation as well as the costs of repeated elections, the system of no-confidence motion can be modified. No-Confidence motion should also be accompanied by a proposal for an alternative government. This would help in preventing mid-term elections. Another important source of instability, particularly at the state level is the intervention by the center, through the governor. Very often unstable coalition governments are made even shakier due to the actions of the governor. This practice should be prevented at all costs.

A government formed by a party with a complete majority has its own benefits. Yet I feel that coalitions are necessary for a country of India's size and diversity. But ultimately it is up to the parties involved in a coalition that determines the success of this form of government.

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Author: DR.N.V. Srinivasa Rao27 Jul 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 6

Coalition governments may be good in a way. But this is being used as a tool to come into power or to stop the majority party to come into power. This is causing many unwanted situations. The elected leaders are more busy in keeping themselves in power rather than good governance to the people. The whole problem is here. If you see the drama in Karnataka we can understand how bad is the coalition. The person with no MLAs behind was made CM and the other party which is having more MLAs on its own will always try to come to power by destabilising the government. We have seen a PM who relinquished his post as he was fell less by one MP. The very need of the hour is the change of the mindset of the politicians. They should think of people. Then only either coalition government or majority single party government can do justice. Till then measuring the majority will be like trying to weigh frogs in a balance. One will be jumping out and by the time you bring that frog back another frog will jump.

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