Will HDK survive this?

Coalition pangs

Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala and Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy and Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara during the swearing-in ceremony of the new government.

Managing a political coalition is an art, given all its diversity, contradictions, pressures and pulls. The JD(S)-Congress coalition in Karnataka went through both birth and berth pangs. It is often said that late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee developed the art of managing a coalition. Coalitions are meant to be goal-oriented political cooperation, which goes beyond an alliance or a network, with a minimum degree of policy interconnectedness. Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy has to learn the art of coalition governance the hard way.

The JD(S)-Congress tie-up was touted to be the dawn of a new era in coalition politics in India, with critical implications for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Disparate opposition parties are attempting to set aside their ideological and policy differences to keep the BJP out of power in 2019.

A study of coalitions globally shows that the primary rationale for forming a coalition is to acquire political power. Needless to say, coalitions have the potential to generate conflict as partners constantly manoeuvre among themselves. Sometimes, the only reason for teaming up is to remain politically relevant and alive. The politics and arithmetic of coalition-building is always complex. All the same, in the present context, this is the only option left for the opposition parties.

The Congress has no choice but to string coalitions across the length and breadth of the country. In the process, ego clashes are bound to happen as Kumaraswamy is experiencing at this point of time. There can be no straitjacket or magic formula to make a coalition work. Rather, it has to be made to work. Let us not forget, Congress and JD(S) had contested the elections as bitter political rivals. Hence, at this stage, the survival of the coalition seems to be the immediate political priority.

The challenges Kumaraswamy faces are the visible fissures in what are perceived to be strong bonds. He even broke down at a party meeting, ruing his fate. Mallikarjun Kharge, senior Congress leader, advised him to take courage and face the circumstances and pain of managing the coalition. Kumaraswamy observed that he is like Vishakanta (Lord Shiva) and has to swallow the pain of this government. He added that managing the present coalition is like drinking poison. A similar scenario was visible in the coalition arrangement between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in Bihar. There was nothing common between those two leaders. The only objective was to keep the BJP out of power.

One wonders whether a Bihar-like break-up, when Nitish suddenly ditched Lalu Yadav’s party and went over to the BJP-led NDA, is just waiting to happen in Karnataka. If it does happen, then it will serve to vindicate all that the BJP has been predicting about the coalition, and with the advantage of it not being perceived as the villain. It is the moment the BJP is waiting for, to grab and capitalise upon, with parliamentary elections fast approaching. 

That the Kumaraswamy government has completed a hundred days in office is by itself an achievement. JD(S) chief Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy’s strategy has been to downplay the importance of former chief minister Siddaramaiah, by directly approaching Congress president Rahul Gandhi to deal with the ego clashes and irritants. This has not been an easy task. Right since he left the JD(S), Siddaramaiah, who was at one time a JD(S) heavyweight, has been a consistent critic of Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy.

In fact, recently, Siddaramaiah has expressed doubts whether the coalition will last out even up to the parliamentary elections. The challenge Kumaraswamy faces within the coalition are those of policy interconnectedness, personality clashes and the clash of interests. The coordination committee that was constituted to oversee the functioning of the coalition needs to function more effectively. It can make or break the coalition.

‘Coalition of the willing’

Kumaraswamy realises that he is not running a majority government but hopes that his coalition will become a model and trend for the forthcoming parliamentary elections. What matters is coalition management and coalition output. As far as the BJP is concerned, they believe that the internal contradictions, pressures and pulls of the coalition will render it dysfunctional, which will have a bearing on the parliamentary elections.

Though the JD(S)-Congress coalition is one of convenience, it is important to ensure that it becomes a ‘coalition of the willing’. The state’s pluralist character also gets reflected in coalition politics. It has to grow on the principle of shared interests and beliefs, with a capacity to maximise common goals. Very often, the two main partners do not share the same intensity of interests. To many, the coalition experiment seems to reflect the art of the impossible. The dilemma is that though coalitions can be inherently shaky, they are the only option available for the survival of political parties.

The greatest threat to the present coalition in Karnataka is the clash over diverse ideologies, interests and egos. One continues to grapple with the dilemma of constituting stable coalitions in various states of India.  The numerical ability of the coalition to govern also matters. Though several permutations are mathematically feasible, they are not necessarily politically workable.

This is a hard lesson for many coalitions in India. International experience of coalition politics shows that instability is never far away, but also that parties with opposing ideologies can work together. Kumaraswamy has no choice but to come to grips with the delicate demands, dilemmas and pressures of managing a coalition in the circumstances in which he finds himself. Intra-party and inter-party conflict management is critical to coalition governance in Karnataka.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Dept of Political Science, Bangalore University).

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