India is a land of many contradictions. One of the biggest contradictions lies in the nature of the Indian polity itself. Our constitution envisioned a polity wherein states were placed on considerable footing vis-a-vis the Central government. The different states were also organized on the basis of languages and ethnic considerations – thus leading to a widespread belief that the concept of India as a nation is tenuous. The disintegration of the erstwhile USSR lent credence to such beliefs. Fortunately, nothing of that sort happened, and is not likely to place in the foreseeable future.
Over the years, India has seen virulent outbursts of regionalism – the Dravid movement, the stress on Marathi Maanus, the Telangana movement are all parts of this paroxysm of regional identities – at the root of which lies a feeling of suppression or discrimination in the hands of a perceived powerful majority. Another clear feature has been the resurgence of the so called “lower castes”, and their greater assertiveness on the social and political stage. Add to this the significant pressure groups of various religious ‘minorities’, and you will get a very potent brew of politics.
What would you expect politicians to do in this scenario? Exploit the situation to the hilt, what else! The parliamentary form of government entails that each state or region sends a considerable number of representatives to the parliament – our supreme legislative body – and the real center of our democracy. These representatives, called the MPs (Members of Parliament) are elected through popular ballot – which follows the ‘first to the post is winner’ approach – one who gets the maximum number of votes will represent the entire constituency. For example, if in a particular constituency, there are three candidates, and after 65% voting, candidate A gets 30% of votes, candidate B gets 20% of votes, and candidate C gets the remaining 15% of votes, A will be the winner, even though he/she has the approval of less than one-third of the voters.
A lot of local influences may sway the voters, or even a small group of voters, towards one candidate or the other, thus ensuring his/her victory. This has meant that even the so called ‘pan-national’ issues are sidelined in favor of intensely local issues. As a result, large parties with national presence have continuously lost ground to regional and local parties. The localization of vote banks has reached such an extent that we have a lot of parties with the number MPs in single digits – even one or two MPs.
With the progress of time, this phenomenon has taken deeper roots, to the extent that political pundits now predict that the days of a clear mandate in favor of a single party are over. The previous decades, incidentally, vouch to this fact. Since the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, all the formations at the center have been coalition governments. Some have succeeded, as in 1991, 1999 and 2004 elections, while some have not, e.g., as in 1989 and 1996. The first coalition experiment at the center – in 1977 – also failed miserably.
It well and truly seems that the era of a single party dominating the polity and government is long over. The last clear mandate in favor of a single party – in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections – seems like a distant dream (A majority of the voters now were not even born then!). Every single election since 1989 has strengthened this theory – that coalition governments at the center are here to stay.
It is not that coalition-culture has affected the national politics only – the states have also been affected at individual levels. The trend of coalition politics is still not being strongly felt at the state level, when compared to the national politics. The bigger states such as UP, Karnataka and Maharashtra are more likely to get a coalition government when compared to smaller states – though smaller states like Jharkhand have also repeatedly got coalition government.
Coalition Governments in India – A Brief Timeline
The writing on the wall is clear – coalition governments at the center will be the norm, rather than exception at the center, at least for the foreseeable future. In this context, it is interesting to note their performance till now.
The experience has been a mixed bag, though one feels that negatives have far outweighed the positives. The first ever coalition experiment in free India, in 1977, was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. The worthies of the coalition could not see eye to eye on almost any matter, and the different pushes and pulls disintegrated the government before it could even complete term.
The 1989 coalition government was another travesty – the coalition government came into being on an anti-Congress and anti-Rajiv Gandhi platform, and ended two years later. Funnily enough, the government collapsed because Congress withdrew its support to Chandrashekhar, who was the Prime minister at that time.
The next government was formed by Congress as the leading party, though supported again by a rag-tag combination of various parties. The coalition succeeded in completing its full five-year term, though not before giving some anxious moments. Major controversies marred the term of this government – especially the Securities Scam, Babri Masjid incident, Mumbai bomb blasts and then riots, and a number of corruption charges – the telecom scandal and the JMM bribery charges leading among them. The most notable achievement of this government was that the economic reforms were finally started in India.
The period 1996-1999 was almost completed in a daze, as far as the government at center is concerned. BJP turned out to be the single largest party, and was invited to form the government. However, BJP failed to gather the herd effectively, and fell well short of the needed numbers. The next largest party, Indian National Congress, declined to form a government, and instead chose to support a rag-tag coalition of impossibly adverse partners, named National front. Predictable, the period saw two prime ministers – HD Devegowda and IK Gujaral. It is a homage to Indian democracy that a person like HD Devegowda, an unknown entity in national politics till then, and having only a handful of MPs in his own party, could become the PM of India.
The next election bought glad tidings for BJP, which again emerged as the single largest party. This time, the party succeeded in cobbling together a coalition (National Democratic Alliance), and completed its full term in the office satisfactorily, with Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm as Prime Minister. However, the alliance could not repeat its performance in the next general elections, much to the surprise of analysts.
In 2004, Indian National Congress emerged as the single largest party, though not large enough to form the government on its own steam It combined with the Left Front to form the government. The INC and the Left Front alliance was pulled in different directions from the inside, but survived its quota of five years somehow. The INC and the Left Front were diametrically opposite in thinking and ideology, and this manifested in significant – almost crippling – differences with regards to policies, especially economic and foreign policies.
In 2009, INC fared much better in elections and came back into power, much to its own surprise. However, even this improved performance was not enough to get a clear majority, and a coalition was formed with various parties. A number of parties agreed to support the government from ‘outside’, without expecting any returns in form of cabinet berths etc. being free from the leftist yoke, the government has worked quite freely till now, though no significant achievement has resulted, that one could write home about.