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Monday, Oct 14, 2019

Opinion | The limits of single-party majorities

The Opposition’s mahagathbandhan can only be a viable proposition if it offers an alternative politics.

columns Updated: Jan 29, 2019 07:48 IST
Yamini Aiyar
Yamini Aiyar
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Opposition leaders at the Trinamool Congress-led 'United India' rally, Kolkata, January 19, 2019.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Opposition leaders at the Trinamool Congress-led 'United India' rally, Kolkata, January 19, 2019.(ANI)

The coming together of India’s motley crew of opposition leaders at the “united India rally” in Kolkata on January 19 was an important step in the direction of building a viable electoral alliance. But even as the opposition leaders sought to craft a common platform, the rally exposed the mahagathbandhan’s greatest vulnerability: stability and leadership.

As May 2019 approaches, stability and strong leadership are emerging as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s primary electoral trump card. The PM was quick to play this card in his response to the rally. The mahagathbandhan, he warned, is an alliance of corruption, negativity and instability. From the BJP’s perspective, the battleline for 2019 is stability and a strong leader vs a leaderless coalition riddled with contradictions or, as Arun Jaitley put it, Modi vs Chaos.

But the relationship between stability through single-party majority rule led by strong leaders and effective governance isn’t as clear-cut as the BJP is arguing. In fact these last four years raise important questions about the effectiveness of national governments where power is concentrated in the hands of a centralised leader with a single party majority, particularly when it comes to their ability to effectively represent India’s diverse regional needs.

The importance of the electoral appeal of strong leadership needs to be understood against the backdrop of the 2014 election. Stymied by corruption scandals, incompetence and the charge of policy paralysis, the Congress in the United Progressive Alliance years repeatedly sought refuge in the argument that coalitions were the impediment. In his first official press conference after the 2G scam broke in 2012, Manmohan Singh was quick to point to the “limitations of coalitions” to defend government inaction. By the end of its tenure, the difficulties of managing Centre-state relations in coalitions became the common refrain to justify the UPA’s policy paralysis. During the 2014 campaign, the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi were deft at using this narrative to their advantage, promising the Indian voter strong, decisive leadership and a new framework for negotiating Centre-state relations to smoothen decision making. This promise was an important part of Modi’s electoral appeal.

Rather than fulfill this promise, four years later, the Modi government offers important lessons on the limits of single-party majorities and strong leadership. First, a decisive parliamentary majority is neither necessary nor sufficient for radical reform. Far from capitalizing on its mandate to initiate long awaited radical change, on key issues of the economy, this government has been remarkably status quoist, disappointing many early supporters.

On social policy, an area that I track closely, the approach has been conservative. Despite early posturing around building a new “empowerment” focused welfare framework and dismantling clunky and corrupt UPA schemes, the government has stayed course with tried-and-tested schemes, renaming them along the way and tweaking budgets to reflect political priorities like sanitation. It is instructive that in the last few months, many interlocutors in the national media have begun arguing that decisive shifts in India’s economic trajectory have in fact taken place under coalition and not single-party majority governments: the 1991 reforms, P Chidambaram’s 1997 dream budget, UPA-1’s rights legislation were all pushed through in coalition governments. This raises an important question worth debate: do coalitions, because of their inherent deliberative nature, create rather than reduce opportunities for radical reforms?

Second, single-party dominance in a centralised party structure risks undermining India’s federal balance and the checks and balances this imposes on the predatory instincts of strong national governments. Since the 1990s, as regional parties gained relevance, internal political party structures of national parties, both the BJP and the Congress, became increasingly centralised, making them far less attuned to and therefore capable of representing diverse, regional perspectives. Regional parties, for all their flaws, thus play an important role in representing state perspectives in national policymaking and, in doing so, serve as an important check against the predatory instincts of the Centre. In this government, the combination of the PM’s leadership style and political alignment between the Centre and states has allowed centralisation and institutional capture to accelerate unchecked. The charge of encroaching on state autonomy and institutional capture has been repeatedly made against this government. And it is undoubtedly its greatest failing. And this is now the glue that will likely bind disparate alliance partners together.

But even as the limitations of strong leadership and single-party dominance are becoming evident, the mahagathbandhan can only be a viable proposition if it offers an alternative politics. Exposing the government’s failings makes good political sense but it isn’t enough. For the moment, whether it is secularism or reservations, the opposition is playing in to the BJP’s hands by worrying about alienating vote banks and refusing to articulate a clear vision and agenda. The Congress’ new secularism, aimed at protecting the Hindu voter, is a powerful illustration of this dilemma. The challenge is for the opposition to stop allowing the BJP to frame its politics. India needs good leadership not strong leadership. This is the mahagathbandhan’s real challenge.

Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jan 29, 2019 07:43 IST

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