Is it time for the return of coalition politics in India?
With the Lok Sabha elections looking truly open, amid intense efforts by various parties to set up alternative ‘fronts’ and alliances, Delhi’s political circles appear to have arrived at a consensus — the era of coalitions will be back this year.
But here is the rub. The coalition era never went away. All governments since 1996 have been coalitions. The United Front (UF) of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, the various iterations of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the two United Progressive Alliance governments under Manmohan Singh were all constellations of a range of political forces. And yes, even the current NDA government is a coalition — for it has members of more of than one party represented in the cabinet.
The question is not whether a coalition will return. That is inevitable. Here is the question for 2019: what will be the balance of power of the next coalition? This question will shape its direction, politics and policy, as a glimpse back at recent history reveals.
The 1996-98 UF coalitions rested on a fragile balance of power where the power, officially, was in the hands of regional parties. But the alliance was dependent on Congress support from outside, and so, real power was exercised by this external force. It is also instructive to remember, as Sanjay Rupareila reminds us in his work on coalition politics in India – Divided We Govern – that the UF governments did not fall because of internal fragmentation among regional or Left parties but because of the Congress.
The Vajpayee government of 1998 was heavily dependent on former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa – and eventually fell because of her withdrawing support. But after he returned to power, following mid-term polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was stronger politically; his stature had grown; smaller parties became tired of frequent polls; the Congress was in disarray and so, the balance of power shifted in favour of the anchor of the coalition.
The first UPA government saw the Congress dependent – in the first four years – on Left parties. This meant that on economic and social welfare agenda, there was a major imprint of the Left on the government policies. This balance changed only when Manmohan Singh decided to stake his prime ministership on the nuclear deal. The Left pulled out, the government survived, and the Congress now had the levers of power again.
The second term of the UPA presented a paradox. The Congress was stronger numerically, crossing the 200 mark. But within a year and a half, it was rocked by corruption allegations – many a legacy of its first term. It was not able to present a central authority; the coalition was marked by utter fragmentation, with each minister operating as a sovereign republic; various factions within the Congress were pulling it in different directions. No one knew where the balance of power rested. ?And this, of course, changed in 2014.
For close to three decades, it was considered a gospel truth of national politics that no party could think of winning an outright majority and governing India alone. Power would have to be shared.
Narendra Modi shattered that principle. For the first time after 1984, a party won the majority in the Lok Sabha on its own. A ‘strong government’ was back. The NDA was, however, intact — and the BJP gave portfolios to allies such as the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, Lok Janshakti Party and others. But their authority was limited and old ‘coalition compulsions’ were out. As the BJP kept winning election after election, not only did it appear that the Centre would be run by one party, but across India, this behemoth would govern the Union and a majority of the states. Power was centralised. The balance was now totally tilted towards the anchor.
The coming rupture
2019 is set to change this. It would be premature to predict the electoral outcome. But what is clear is that no party is likely to win an outright majority on its own. And this means that the role of smaller parties will be crucial in crossing the 272-mark.
This also means that the balance of power will be far more even than it has been over the last five years; power will once again be distributed; and the days of absolute central authority will pass.
Three scenarios could pan out.
The BJP could remain the single largest party. It will then turn to its existing NDA allies and reach out to other potential partners for a wider coalition. This will mean compromise on its ideological agenda, on power distribution and cabinet berths, and, perhaps, even leadership. This could be a replay of the Vajpayee years of 1998 or 1999-2004, depending on the numbers BJP possesses.
The Congress could substantially improve its performance. It if exceeds the 130-150 range, the party could even throw its hat in the game for leadership. The onus will then rest on the Congress to build a coalition and share power with the other parties. This will, in some ways, be a replay of UPA-1 years.
Or the BJP may substantially shrink – say, losing over a 100 seats from its current tally; the Congress may improve to over 100-120 seats, but not gain enough to claim leadership; and the regional parties – especially those in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra do well enough to hold the keys to power. In this scenario, leadership could move to a non-Congress, non-BJP party, but the government would rest on the support of the Congress. Depending on whether the Congress chooses to join the government or support it from outside, this could be a replay or variation of the UF years of 1996-1998.
This year will see the return of the coalition, both in letter and spirit. 2019 could then well mark the return to the old normal of Indian politics.