How excited are you by the thought of Mamata Bannerjee calling the shots at the Centre? By the prospect of Jayalalithaa holding the government to ransom? By the image of Amar Singh deciding what India’s economic policy should be? By Mayawati ordering the Prime Minister around?
Don’t bother answering. These were rhetorical questions, anyway. But judging by the looks of horror that have spread across your faces this Sunday morning, you are finally beginning to come to terms with what things might be like once the results are declared.
My intention was not to wreck your Sunday. Rather, I wanted to point out how reality has destroyed one of the great clichés of 1990s political discourse. Since 1989, when it became clear that we were entering an era of hung Parliaments, political scientists, commentators, journos, edit writers and all-purpose intellectuals, began arguing that coalitions were A Very Good Thing.
The most popular version of this argument went something like this: a vast country like India is itself a coalition. So no single party can claim to reflect the interest of all its citizens. Far better, therefore, to have a multiplicity of small, regional parties which come together to chalk out a national programme for action. This will be democracy in action!
Of course it has never quite worked out that way. No coalition or minority government without a single dominant partner has ever done India any good.
In 1977, Janata (a coalition of the Jana Sangh, the Lok Dal, the old Congress, Socialists and others) had a historic opportunity to set India right after the Emergency. That government screwed up so badly that in two years, it had fallen, its place taken by a joke coalition led by Charan Singh and then in 1980, the electorate was forced to welcome Sanjay and Indira Gandhi back.
In 1989, V.P. Singh headed an unprincipled government (backed by both the BJP and the Left!) whose principal achievements were a) it launched an FIR regime which succeeded in only arresting one entity: a performing bear called Munna, b) it gave us Mandal and brought caste back in Indian politics and c) it didn’t last for much longer than a year.
In 1996/7, we had the disastrous governments of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral whose principal achievements were a) Deve Gowda got to take scores of his relatives to every international conference: he took 20 of them to the G-20, perhaps because he misread the invitation. And b) Inder Gujral asked R&AW to wind up its clandestine operations in Pakistan as a result of which Indians continue to die in terrorist attacks today.
Given this record, who in his right mind — except Prakash Karat perhaps — still believes in a Third Front, a Fourth Front or any other kind of regional Front? History is on the side of the big battalions — and the big parties.
But you don’t have to go back in history to recognise this. Just look at today’s regional parties. Do any of them have any conception of national interest? Do they really give a damn about India outside of their own self-interest or their regional or caste loyalties?
Let’s take the most recent examples. Mulayam Singh Yadav has said that he will support any coalition at the Centre that agrees to dismiss the Mayawati government. So forget about respecting the Constitution. This man actually wants to rape it.
Only if a central coalition agrees to dismiss a legally elected state government, which enjoys a majority (to benefit the losing party in the state election), will Mulayam agree to support it!
Great. And this is supposed to be democracy in action!
What about Tamil Nadu? For years, Jayalalithaa has opposed the LTTE and distanced herself from the movement for a Tamil Eelam. But now that she thinks she could gain electoral benefit, she has reversed her stand and called for the break-up of Sri Lanka. Ten days later, M. Karunanidhi has done the same.
So that’s how these guys define national interest: our foreign policy should be based on the possibility of generating a 4 per cent swing in Tamil Nadu.
Not that either Tamil party has shown any willingness to rise above self-interest in the past either. Jayalalithaa held the Vajpayee government to ransom when she was its ally, demanding that the income tax department be reshuffled to suppress her revenue cases. And the DMK has been the most corrupt constituent of the UPA, making thousands of crores and gratuitously insulting Hindus over the Ram Setu project only because it had promised dredging contracts to cronies.
I could go on. Mayawati has no interest in economic policy or foreign policy. Her condition: she must be made Prime Minister. Everything else is irrelevant.
Mamata Bannerjee has followed destructive polices that drove the Tatas out of Singur, damaged the interests of her state and ruined West Bengal’s chances of attracting any investment. I’m not ready to believe the common story that she was bribed to do this by the Tata’s business rivals. So the only explanation for her mad behaviour is that she is an unscrupulous woman who will do anything to gain short-term advantage no matter how much she hurts the interests of her own state.
That’s democracy in action?
What about the TRS whose conception of national interest is limited to carving out a new state in Telangana? Or Naveen Patnaik, who rediscovered secularism only after seat-sharing talks with the BJP broke down? Or the Akali Dal which is now no more than a family business with a turnover of billions?
It is the same depressing story nearly everywhere you go. And yet, such is the fractured nature of our polity, that the major parties have no choice but entertain the demands and agendas of these selfish and small-minded regional parties.
The Congress allowed Karunanidhi’s crooked ministers to make their millions and could not openly oppose his Ram Setu rhetoric. It has now done a turnaround on the state of Telangana as well only to defeat the TRS.
So it is with the BJP. Despite being the party of the Hindi heartland, it cannot get Bal Thackeray to declare that North Indians are welcome in Bombay. And now, the party has decided to suddenly support the demand for a Gorkha state only because Jaswant Singh is desperate to get into the Lok Sabha.
My fear is that unless the new government that is formed in Delhi this month has at its centre a single entity with, say 160 seats, India will continually be at the mercy of regional parties and their demands. It is not enough that the Third Front has failed. Regional parties could still seriously damage India as part of larger coalitions.
The time has come for political pundits to accept that they were wrong. India does not need coalitions. The growth of regional parties may or may not have benefited their regions. But it has certainly hurt India.
Ultimately the best hope for this country is a two-party system. It does not really matter who wins this election: the Congress or BJP.
What matters is that the winner has enough seats to guarantee our country the stability and good governance it needs in these desperate and dangerous times.