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Federalism thrives under a coalition government

Federalism thrives under a coalition government

Plural societies do not pose a threat to national unity — totalitarian regimes do.

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Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 05:55 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 05:55 IST
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Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have a formidable job on their hands: accommodating the demands of the two allies that can help them form a government at the Centre.

The demands range from appointing the Lok Sabha Speaker from parties other than the BJP, allotment of important ministries to the two allies, and rolling back of the Agniveer scheme. Though acceptance of these demands is crucial for government formation, for a party that for 10 years had its way inside and outside Parliament, the demands must come as a rude shock.

We can assume that the BJP will also not be able to implement controversial legislation: the Uniform Civil Code, the National Register of Citizens (NRC), further implementation of the CAA, the redrawing of constituencies, let alone its dream of ‘one country-one leader’ in a coalition. Telugu Desam Party (TDP) chief N Chandrababu Naidu and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar are known for their commitment to secularism. The leadership of the single-largest party in Parliament might have to limit its agenda.

India needs a coalition at the Centre. We have had enough of hate speech, violence towards minorities, irresponsible comments about changing the Constitution, institutional capture, destruction of civil liberties, and the replacement of social rights with personalised labarthi schemes. A coalition government might restore checks and balances that are essential for controlling abuse of power; because partners will have to consult, bargain, accept criticism, and work for policy consensus.

That is why coalition governments are indispensable for a country that is so vast and so linguistically and regionally diverse. The only way in which this diversity can be registered in New Delhi is through a federal system, elections that are based on proportional representation, and coalition governments that can bring different and often clashing perspectives onto the policy-making table. India is wonderfully chaotic and often creative. The moment this plurality is respected by the power elite, we see the flowering of democracy. Democracy, after all, offers a space for deliberation and debate.

In India, coalition governments, ever since the victory of the Janata Party in 1977, are identified with democracy and respect for federalism. The Janata Party experiment fell through within three years because partners subscribed to ideologies that just could not be reconciled. Yet it is generally accepted that in this period the constitutionally sanctioned autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir was respected.

As the Congress system increasingly collapsed in the 1980s, India witnessed a phase of coalition governments, some of which lasted a very short time because of personal conflicts, and the absence of a leader who could successfully negotiate with smaller parties. Still, it was the V P Singh government that legislated protections for the backward castes, and established the Inter-State Council via Article 263 in 1990. This had been recommended by the Sarkaria Commission Report of 1988. 

Coalition governments are largely able to enact progressive policies because regional parties have a formidable presence in the Union government. Coalition governments in this period were unstable and constantly threatened by internal dissension, but they were consensual and responsive to regional interests.

During the period of the rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) (2004-2014), significant social legislation, some of which was inaugurated by the previous government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, and some of which was the outcome of earlier decisions of the Supreme Court, was passed. Coalition governments have established that leaders of dominant parties have accorded respect to regional leaders as well as chief ministers, and included them in crucial areas of policy-making.

On the contrary, Governments under strong leaders act as the proverbial bully. The BJP government tried to impose Hindi on states that have fought battles in the 1960s against the dominant one-language formulae, for instance in Tamil Nadu.

The Union government over the last 10 years appointed its representatives to the governor’s office. Governors have made controversial inroads into state autonomy, such as Arif Mohammed Khan in Kerala, V K Saxena in Delhi, and R N Ravi in Tamil Nadu. The Union government has failed to give states their rightful share of taxes, and has generally behaved like an autocrat determined to bring regional satraps under control.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah failed to understand that nations are not made by the imposition of laws upon reluctant states. India will be a nation on its terms but not in the European sense of centralisation. Its terms are regional autonomy, diversity, and political coalitions. A nation is tied by the Constitution and the creation of a democratic political community.

Ideally, a coalition government should emerge out of a pre-poll alliance and a common minimum programme, as was the case of the UPA government. Post-poll alliances are likely to be driven solely by power considerations. But if the objective is to prevent a repeat of what India experienced over the last 10 years — shrill calls for Hindutva, scant regard for minorities, and dismissal of regional identities — a post-poll alliance makes sense.

So, if Naidu and Kumar should prefer to join the I.N.D.I.A. alliance, the move will be politically wise. At least alliance partners will share the same political priorities. An I.N.D.I.A. government will reverse ill-thought-out moves, recapture institutional autonomy and probity, bring a spirit of civility in political discourse, respect for plurality, and the understanding that plural societies do not pose a threat to national unity — totalitarian regimes do.

(Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University. X: @ChandhokeNeera.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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