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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2710

Coalition grand and not so grand

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

In a newspaper interview in 2005, Lord Meghanand Desai, former professor at London School of Economics, had spoken words to the effect that within a matter of next few months Sonia Gandhi will throw up her hands and say: ‘I want elections’. He made that prediction because he seemed convinced that the heterogeneous UPA coalition would not allow the Congress to implement its economic agenda. Despite the full life of the governments under PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the general impression is that a multi-party government in India is less stable and, hence, unable to implement its economic agenda than the one run by a single party or even two parties.

The British peer with a beehive on his top may not have exactly hit bull’s eye in 2005 because throughout the two past years there was really no serious talk of mid-term polls in the country. And it is not really the UPA economic agenda, controversial though some may find it, that is likely to lead to a mid-term poll but the Indo-US civil nuclear deal that has become a hot political potato in the country.

Of course, Meghanand Desai could be wrong again if he thought that a mid-term poll would lead to a one-party majority at the Centre. No matter what the usual poll pundits say, there is no guarantee that the Congress—or any other party, for that matter—will get a clear majority in the event of a mid-term poll.

If the majority of Indians are going to be undecided about their clear favourites in the polls and worry about the spectre of repeated hung parliaments, Lord Meghanand had offered a solution that perhaps most political animals in India would find either startling or too absurd. He said in the course of that interview that in order to ensure a sustained high rate of growth India should enter the era of ‘grand coalition’—a meeting of the two eternal enemies in politics, the Congress and the BJP, that would ensure full life to the government at the Centre and also help it implement its economic agenda without much hindrance from the other parties.

For someone like Lord Desai who has lived in Europe for a long time, the idea of ‘grand coalition’ holds no shock value as it might in this country. One of the most prosperous nations, Germany, is being ruled by a ‘grand coalition’ formed by the two main rivals. One of the more successful periods of recent Germany was when Chancellor Willy Brandt ruled the country as the head of a grand coalition. In Israel grand coalition has been more of a rule than an exception.

At home also, two or more parties seen as ideologically ‘poles apart’ have joined hands to form a government. The reference here is to the Janata and National Front government experiments at the Centre when the Indian Left, allegedly hypersensitive about being seen in the company of the ‘communalists’, had sat on the same side of the fence. It is immaterial that in one of those experiments the major constituent of the Left, the CPI(M), had stayed out of the government and only CPI joined the government. Such experiments have taken place at the state level with CPI and BJP working together in one coalition in Patna.

It also does not matter much that in the first ‘Janata’ experiment in 1977 the ‘communal’ Jana Sangh first merged itself into a broader ‘secular’ identity and then spun out as a separate entity to reclaim its original ideological colour.

Political apartheid of the Jana Sangh and the ideology that it represented had ended with the formation of the first ‘Janata’ government. 12 years later, comrades and the ‘knickerwallahs’ had a chance to clasp each other’s hands in the formation of VP Singh government at the Centre.

That the Jan Sangh had reclaimed its original ideological colour at the end of Janata interlude is a different matter. And the frequent coalescence of political interests of the Left and the Right, for instance, over the nuclear deal, these days may not be a coincidence. The point is the groundwork for a ‘grand coalition’ was, consciously or unconsciously, taken up some years ago though it did not make any steady progress. This may have something to do with the peculiar ethos of Indian politics.

Grand coalitions in the West succeed because the political partners, once having settled for working together, do not allow their ideological or other differences to bring down the very government they have propped up. A more fundamental reason could be that unlike India, the political parties in the West do not tend to place too much emphasis on personal egos and ‘lineage’. Many of our parties look like family concerns and they do not hesitate to feed on sub-nationalism and parochial considerations based on caste, creed, religion and regionalism. Our regional parties, not withstanding the clout they enjoy at the national level revolve round Mulayams, Naidus, Mamatas and Mayawatis. They lack a pan-Indian vision and think and act like regional satraps of yore, focussing merely on their core constituency, even as members of ruling coalition.

Rules of the ‘coalition dharma’ do not exist for the lexicon of smaller parties and that is why as partners in a coalition frequently they threaten to act against their dominant player unmindful of the consequences. These smaller parties can also choose to remain in an alliance yet contest elections against the coalition partners. Like Ram Vilas Paswan and his Lok Janshakti party did in the UP elections for instance.

What contributed to the mushroom growth of regional and smaller parties? The Congress, as the Grand Old Party, has much to answer; the charge is that it has practised dishonesty in making India a truly ‘federal’ state. Sarkaria commission’s recommendations on Centre- State relations could not stop centralisation of power and the encroachment of states’ rights. While this is deplorable, the way the small satraps are going about browbeating Delhi make it look that a weak and unstable Centre is now an absolute must for preserving the federal polity.

A serious flaw in multi-party coalitions, as the UPA experiment shows, is that they have tended to look more brittle and distract the government from devoting full attention to implementing its policies and programmes, imperfect though they may look to some. A mid way toppling of a government is like judging a long-distance runner’s performance on the basis of his or her showing in the first 100 or 200 metres.

Lord Desai may have sound reasons to suggest that the two principal political rivals in India should become allies for the sake of economic good of the country. But the ‘grand coalition’ idea for India is will work only when the political parties agree to undergo cultural transformation that allows them to put the national interest above that of a caste, community or region. They will have to restrain themselves from vetoing polices on grounds of jealousies, obsolete ideologies and misplaced paranoia. At the moment that day seems far off.

- Syndicate Features -

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