Far from ‘majboor’, coalitions spell a ‘mazboot’ polity

Coalitions are better for the economy in contrast to what the BJP has projected

In his recent address at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah's press conference on Friday, May 17, just minutes before curtains came down on Campaign 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that after a long time a single-party majority government would return to office after completing its entire tenure of five years.

This is factually correct for after Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962, no other premier at the head of a single-party majority government has returned to office. Indira Gandhi in 1971, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and Manmohan Singh in 2009 were re-elected either after partial terms (Gandhi and Vajpayee) or when they were not presiding over a single-party majority (Singh).

Modi's assertion was a campaign tactic for voters in 59 constituencies who were due to vote. But more importantly, it was the final statement of the mazboot or strong government promise that the BJP made to the electorate. Like most simplistic arguments of strongmen worldwide, who paint reality in black and white categories, the making of Modi's public imagination in 2019 has been based on depicting this election as a ‘decisive leader’ versus ‘a motley bunch’ contest.

Days away from possibly the most significant electoral battle for a long time to come, it is imperative to examine what is better for the nation's health – single-party majority or coalition governments.

At a very basic level, coalitions are essential because the first-past-the-post system India adopted after nearly a century of formal colonial rule, is flawed in a sense. The system is imperfect because the parliamentary strength of the ruling or governing party is not proportional to its support among people or the electorate.

Take the case of the 16th Lok Sabha which has to be replaced by a new House latest by June 3. The BJP came to power in 2014 by securing 31.34 per cent of the vote but had a 51.93 per cent presence in the Lok Sabha. Contrastingly, the Congress which secured 19.52 per cent of the votes did not get the status of Leader of Opposition and had a share of 8.1 per cent in the Lower House.

Likewise, no party in India has ever won more than 50 per cent of votes, even at the height of Rajiv Gandhi's brutish majority in 1984-89 when it won an astounding 404 seats (it added another 10 seats to its kitty in 1985 after elections in rife-ridden states of Assam and Punjab). Nehru too never had majority support among the electorate, yet had comfortable parliamentary majorities. This disproportionate power makes governments less inclusive and partisan.

India is a social coalition and the government must mirror this. This can be done in two ways – first, by a ruling party which is pluralistic and provides space and respect to various opinions; secondly, by those who have a very high index of internal democracy. At the moment, there is no party that qualifies to be either and thereby, for the security of India's composite heritage it is essential that governance does not stay in the hands of the BJP alone, primarily because it has a vision of a unitary India in the long run.

During the UPA years, Manmohan Singh often bemoaned the perils of a coalition government. But stalled reforms are anyday better than totally horrible ideas being rammed through the middle of the nation. Take the instances of arbitrariness over the past five years and the disastrous consequences on governance and the people: Demonetisation, botched classification system when GST was introduced and the Aadhar overreach done by circumventing the Rajya Sabha when the legislation was passed as a Money Bill are just a few of the negative possibilities of a single-party majority.

These instances of capriciousness on part of the prime minister does not take into account various possibilities if a non-BJP minister was part of the Cabinet Committee on Security and if so much power did not vest in the PMO or with the National Security Adviser.

Moreover, much of the liberty given to the fringe Hindutva forces would have been curtailed had the government been dependent on allies for continued majority. Even now, Nitish Kumar's statement on Pragya Thakur will act as a deterrence to the BJP's public embrace of her, only if the BJP is dependent on the Janata Dal (United) and other allies for forming the government and later for its survival.

Modi has built his entire campaign against the mahamilawti (literally, adulterated) government that awaited India if the people did not vote for BJP by citing that growth too would be impeded and policy formulation would go for a toss. The record however points differently.

A cursory glance at India's growth reveals that the country’s growth trajectory since the 1980s has not been hindered by coalition governments. Contrarily, the pace of reforms were quickened under coalition regimes. Even PV Narasimha Rao, although he did not have coalition partners, ran a minority government which depended on the support of Congress ally, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK). Yet, his government has been credited with most far-reaching economic reforms.

P Chidambaram's 'dream budget' of 1997 was presented under Prime Minister HD Devegowda, whose party had only 46 members in the Lok Sabha. Coalitions, irrespective of the party leading it, are associated with some of the highest growth trajectories in history – UPA and NDA both registered a CAGR of 6.4 across their tenures.

The decades when India's economy was characterised by a 'Hindu rate of growth', the ruling party commanded more than 50 per cent share of the seats in the Lok Sabha. Nehru began with 74 per cent in 1952, Indira was close to 70 per cent in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi, eventually, had 80.5 per cent presence in Lok Sabha. In contrast, the value of the 'Y Axis' varied between 37 per cent in 1989 (VP Singh's tenure) to 33 per cent under Vajpayee and 27 per cent when Singh assumed office in 2004.

Parliamentary hegemony prevents unrestrained debate on crucial legislations and policy as the ruling party, with help from 'friendly' presiding officers, get away with 'voice vote' on crucial issues. The anti-defection law prevents dissent within parties and Whips are silent on how a directive is issued and whether this has been preceded by internal deliberation or is the result of directive from 'above'.

Globally too, the political canvas in Europe makes a strong case in favour of coalitions. Despite the emergence of populist nationalists in recent years, it is evident that a majority of the people across the world are in favour of coalitions.

Governments must be encumbered from within to prevent unilateral Tughlaquean change in policy – foreign and domestic – overnight. As the EVMs await being tabulated, one can only hope that people remember that they may have got a 'strong leader' in 2014, but they never got the promised reforms. Instead, they were heaped with decisions that few supported and if anyone wished to questions these, they were branded as anti-nationals.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

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