The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Coalitions may have become part of contemporary Indian politics, but that is not to say that we are any closer to resolving the paradoxes inherent in them. Recently, the celebrations to mark the “successful” completion of three years of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre were marred by the infighting in the Bharatiya Janata Party-Bahujan Samaj Party coalition government in Uttar Pradesh. Mayavati may have subsequently campaigned for Narendra Modi in Gujarat, but the current amity may not be permanent. Also, take the problems over who would be chief minister that came in the way of the Congress and People’s Democratic Party aligning to form a government in Jammu and Kashmir — finally resolved when the Congress wisely chose to give way to the PDP.

But, perhaps, the only way to overcome the fractiousness inherent in India’s socio-cultural diversity is to build social coalitions and transform them into political coalitions — held together by a basic consensus over issues and purposes, and possibly a unifying political vision concerning communities, regions, states and the nation. Such political coalitions engender a sense of power-sharing among diverse socio-cultural groups.

Managing diversity

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi transformed the Congress into a grand coalition of myriad social groups seeking freedom from British imperialism because he understood the necessity of building a viable polity and a well-knit nation out of India’s imme-nse variety. The political and electoral success of the Congress for some decades after independence was very much the result of this coalitional character of the party.

Jawaharlal Nehru kept in mind the need to represent India’s diversity while constituting his cabinets. Over the years, the Congress retained its character as a political platform for various social groups, despite all the compulsions of electoral politics. After Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, there was a rapid breakdown of one-party domination.

This process began as soon as competitive politics became an instrument for marginal social groups to seek civic and political space and demand their share in the spoils of power. That the Congress was fast losing its sheen was first reflected in the results of the 1967 general elections. Indira Gandhi’s divisive politics reduced social coalitions into vote banks but neither she nor her successors could have foreseen the sad decline of the grand old party.

Failed experiments

Moving on to some of the later experiments with coalition politics, the Janata Party, which defeated the Congress in the 1977 general elections, remained an amalgam of parties representing myriad interests. It crumbled under individual ambitions and the contradictions of managing a party and a government. Similarly, V.P. Singh, who led the next coalition government at the Centre in 1989, could not survive for long on a social coalition of other backward classes and Muslims. The BJP’s attempts to forge a coalition by whipping up Hindu majoritarian passions over Ayodhya and Kashmir could make it the single largest party in Parliament in 1996, 1998 and 1999, but it could not help it to get a majority on its own.

Its seeming success in the most recent coalition experiment at the Centre (the NDA has had the longest run among such governments) is, however, premised on the silence of the other partners on the issue of Hindutva — a compromise made for the sake of power. Lately however, the allies seem to have become restive, sore at the BJP strengthening its turf at their expense.

As a result of the breakdown of social coalitions all over the country, governance is increasingly being carried out by political coalitions which are proving transient and volatile. Parties with an agenda targetted at a particular section of the electorate cannot be allies for long. Thus, federalization of the parties at the regional, state and national levels has to take place to stem the volatility of our political system.

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