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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 31 New Delhi July 21, 2018

Responsive Coalition Government vis-à-vis Authoritarian Majoritarian Government

Saturday 21 July 2018

by Vijay Kumar

As the 2019 general election draws near, and in the wake of the recent setbacks to the BJP in by-polls across the country and it being outsmarted by the Congress in forming the government in Karnataka despite emerging as the single largest party, the talk of a coalition government with the perceived image of mis-governance inherent in messy arrangements has been agog. The Narendra Modi-led BJP Government will try hard to convert the coming election as a presidential one and seek vote around his masculine image and aggressive nationalist postures and belittle the alternative comprising of dozen coalition parties, perhaps led by the Congress, or supported by it. I argue here that the proposition that the coalition government is a charter of mis-governance and a strong majoritarian government alone can deliver is a myth that needs to be interrogated with all the intellectual resources at our command.

Democracy is not only about election, though it is one of the most important parts of it. No less significant is the importance of institutions and the practice of checks and balances through it. In Germany, the coalition government was formed after five months of political stalemate, and yet, the governance did not suffer because robust independent institutions were in place and those performed their functions even in the midst of political uncertainty.

Governance is secured best by efficient functioning of institutions rather than by the size and number of the majority. Given the existence of democracy, the institutions and their efficient and independent functioning become inescapable concomitants. The institution can function efficiently only when it is independent and seen to be so. Experience has shown that institutions in India have functioned more independently and credibly at the time of a coalition government and their performance and autonomy have come under strain whenever there was a government by majority. In the context of the functioning of the Supreme Court, F.S. Nariman, the most respected legal luminary of the country in our time, has been reminding us ever since the 2014 election that the highest Court of the land has been tamed before a strong government and has asserted its independent role at the time of a coalition government.

Once institutional effectiveness and credibility are compromised, the efficacy of checks and balances, which lies at the core of the theory of separation of power, loses its potency. In all mature democracies, utmost importance is attached to institutional effectiveness and wellbeing. The significance of checks and balances through autonomous functioning of institutions is evident in the US even at the time of imperial presidency of Donald Trump with all the elements of his narcissism and megalomaniac instinct.

The instrumentality of checks and balances operates at both the constitutional and political levels. Constitutionally, the function of checks and balances operates through the doctrine of separation of power which has been declared as the basic feature of the Constitution. The theory of separation of power demarcates the area of sphere among legislature, executive and judiciary. Under the principle of separation of power, the legislature is supposed to hold the executive to account and it is the duty of the judiciary to intervene when the executive and legislature transgress the limits of their powers. At the constitutional level, the powerful and independent court can and ought to tame the majoritarian impulse by upholding the rights of the citizens which is what constitutionalism is all about. At the political level, there has to be strong countervailing forces to interrogate the government. Here, the role of the Opposition parties, civil society and media becomes crucial as these institutions can individually and cumulatively act as countervailing forces, and thereby interrogate the excesses and arrogance of the government.

In India, except the majoritarian government under Pandit Nehru, all governments with strong majority have demonstrated proclivities to undermine institutions and their independence. The government of Narendra Modi with just a comfortable majority has shown all the tendencies to subvert the autonomy of the institutions, whether it is the judiciary, Election Commission, universities and media. We need independent and powerful judiciary to uphold the right of the citizens, especially those who have no effective political voice against the government. The legitimacy of the electoral process can only be secured by a robustly independent functioning of the Election Commission. We can have liberal space only when universities and educational institutions are autonomous and insulated from governmental interference. And, last but not the least, we need a strong and fearless media to expose the lapses and excesses of the government.

Francis Fukuyama, one of the tallest political scientists of our time, has chosen Scandinavian countries as a model for ideal democracy because of the impersonal rule that governs the functioning of institutions there rather than the cult of personality which has become the norm in many countries. Apart from efficiency, the issue of legitimacy and fairness of action also assume significance; these can be ensured through impersonal rule rather than external political influence. The empirical evidence has demonstrated that the function of institutions comes under pressure under a majoritarian government and the sturdy functioning of it is better achieved in a coalition government. The short point which deserves to be pressed home is that the functioning of checks and balances is performed more vigorously by independent institutions in a coalition government, and, conversely, gets undermined by a government having a strong majority.

The principle of accountability and responsiveness lie at the heart of democratic governance. The coalition government is undoubtedly more accountable and responsive, and strong majoritarian government, on this count, suffers from democratic deficit. Here, the following comments, in the context of the debate on the Parliamentary vis-à-vis Presidential system, made by Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, on 25.11.1949, that is, the penultimate day of the sitting of the Constituent Assembly, are extremely apt:

“The second thing we must do is to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions’. There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish Patriot Daniel O’connel, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salavation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

The admonition of Dr B.R. Ambedkar has turned out to be prophetic. The BJP is going to contest the 2019 general election on the basis of the personality of its leader Narendra Modi by side-stepping the issue of governance, ranging from economic issues, the farmers’ distress, unemployment, the alarmingly shrinking space for liberal values, increasing intolerance resulting in the rise of lynch mentality and the foreign policy. It is incumbent upon the Opposition parties and their leaders to keep on harping on these issues and resist the election being hijacked into a presidential form. Dr Ambedkar administered the warning a long time back and it is for all of us to pay heed to the same.

The author is a Supreme Court Advocate.

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