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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 34 August 13, 2016 [Independence Day Special 2016]

Politics of Coalition Formation in the Backdrop of Indian Democracy and Governance

Monday 15 August 2016


by Bharti Chhibber

Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India by Sanjay Ruparelia; New Delhi: Oxford University Press; 2015; pp. 480; Rs 995.

Several political parties cooperate in a coalition government in Cabinet formation minimising the dominance of any one party in a parliamentary form of governance. The coalition process is generally adopted in cases of hung Parliament when no single political party has achieved majority in Parliament. Likewise a political coalition is a pre- or post-poll alliance between different political parties to collaborate on the common political agenda either for contesting an election and/or for the formation of the government after the elections.

In India at the Centre, the first-ever coalition government, which was an amalgamation of four parties, was formed under the Prime Ministership of Morarji Desai after the Emergency and sixth general elections from 1977 to 1979. The second coalition government, comprising a seven-party alliance, externally supported by the Left Front and BJP, was that of the National Front from 1989 to 1990 which came to power after the ninth general elections. Likewise the fractured result of the eleventh general elections resulted in the formation of the third coalition government, a minority government of fifteen-party alliance called the United Front from 1996 to 1998. All these could not last a full parliamentary term. These three experiments with coalition politics form the backdrop of the book under review.

Sanjay Ruparelia’s Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India examines the rise and fall of the parliamentary Left in the Indian democratic set-up and politics of the coalition form of governance in modern India. It further investigates the role of the ‘third force’ in the Indian political scene. The author has used many primary sources, including what he has called ‘confidential testimonies’ of key political actors, to highlight the politics of three coalition governments in modern India—the Janata Party, National Front and the United Front.

The author highlights the flaws in the earlier studies on coalition politics which have failed to explain how multi-party governments actually function. He argues that ‘the pursuit of power in a highly regionalised federal parliamentary democracy such as India creates incentives to forge national coalition governments: yet para-doxically decreases their chances of survival. Ultimately the failure of socialists and communists to judge their real historical possibilities at key junctures led to the decline of the broader Indian Left.’ The Left Front governments’ loss of power in Kerala and West Bengal in State Assembly elections followed by the dismissive performance in the sixteenth general elections in 2014 inflicted a huge defeat on the Left. A rejuvenated BJP attacked steep economic downfall, political corruption and leadership vacuum that was part of the second UPA rule. With a remarkable electoral victory in 2014 the BJP became first party to win a parliamentary majority since 1984.

 The author tries to answer some critical questions surrounding the Indian political Left including ‘what explains the rise of socialists, communists and regional parties since the late 1970s?’, ‘why have they faced repeated difficulties in the construction of a stable third front?’, ‘what explains the politics, policies and performance of coalition governments?’ The study of coalition in India has gone through two phases. First, examination of coalition in the 1960s and 1970s in States and the second phase of comparative perspective explained through multi-party governments since the late 1970s. The author sees coalition politics through comparative lens without neglecting historical particularities.

The author finds a lacuna in the present scholar-ship on Indian coalition politics which emphasises on competing party interests and formal institutional arrangements to explain the formation and demise of coalition alliances. He stresses that these neglect internal party disputes over whether to share power, with whom to share? and to what extent? which caused real estrangement. Ruparelia argues that ‘what prevented the leaders of the third force from exercising good political judgment, especially those on the broader Indian Left was their tendency to conceptualise power in fixed indivisible and zero-sum terms’.

Divided into three parts with broad themes ‘The Genesis of the Third Force’, ‘The Maturing of the Third Force’, ‘The Fall of the Third Force’, the book has twelve chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. The book is supplemented by maps such as on Electoral Performance of Partisan Blocs 1951-1977; Seat and Vote-Share of Parties after Sixth General Elections, 1977, Ninth General Elections 1989, and Eleventh General Elections 1996; Effective Number of Parties in Parliament 1980-2009; Decline of National Party Vote- and Seat-Share 1980-2009.

The book aims to provide an in-depth analyses of rise and decline of the ‘third force’ since the 1970s. Part one explains the genesis of the third force through political speeches, party manifestos, media reports, electoral survey data and government documents.

Chapter one interrogates the prevailing notion of coalition politics in India through comparative theoretical literature. It highlights how party leaders and complex interaction result in unstable multi-party governments. Ruparelia opines that coalition leaders must work out strategies, plans of power-sharing based on consultation, negotiation and compromise. Chapter two traces the roots of the broader Indian Left from 1934-1977. Its origin lay in the anti-colonial struggle during the 1930s. The author further discusses why communists and socialists failed to unite against the Congress. Chapter three examines the formation, performance and demise of the Janata Party. According to the author, the Janata Party augmented parliamentary democracy through constitutional reforms, worked on Centre-State relationship and tried to have better relationship with neighbours. However, clashing political ambitions resulted in its fall. Chapter four investigates the rise of the regional parties in States during the 1980s. The author further highlights how regional parties are the main actors of coalition politics. Despite the 1984 victory of the Congress, reintegrated communist Left and regional parties gave electoral competition to the Congress. Political corruption and economic mismanagement ultimately resulted in its downfall. Chapter five documents the formation, working and demise of the National Front. Rival aspirations over Prime Ministership threatened the coalition.

Part two analyses the rise, performance and fall of the United Front in the next five chapters. Chapter seven traces the formation of the United Front in May 1966. The decision of the CPI-M to reject Prime Ministership highlighted competing interests and strategies. Chapter eight analyses H.D. Deve Gowda’s rule. The author points out in Chapter nine that this coalition used national power to serve its interest by imposing President’s Rule against rivals in Gujarat and UP exposing its claim to be different from the Congress and BJP. Chapter twelve highlights disintegration of the third force from 1998 to 2012. Managing stable national coalition governments in India with multiple regional influences that are ideologically different is a challenge in itself. The book ends with a contemplation on the future of social democratic politics in India in the coming years.

Some interesting photographs taken from The Indian Express archives add to the volume like that of Rammanohar Lohia; Atal Behari Vajpayee, Jayaprakash Narayan (who persuaded the BJS to join the Janata Party in January 1977); Bharatiya Lok Dal leader Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram who left the Congress after the Emergency; the three principal leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 1990s: its General Secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu and Chief Minister of Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad; and a photograph taken at the time of formation of the United Front in May 1996 with P. Chidambaram, N. Chandrababu Naidu, M Karunanidhi, Biraj Sarma, G.K. Moopanar and H.D. Deve Gowda. The book is further supplemented by a very useful glossary in the beginning and bibliography and index at the end.

The book is an interesting addition to the study of coalition politics in India. Divided We Govern presents a detailed study of achievements and failures of the Janata, National Front and United Front Governments. It will appeal to politicians, scholars and students keen to know more about Indian democracy and governance and politics of coalition formation in modern India.

Dr Bharti Chhibber teaches Political Science in the University of Delhi.