Constricting coalitions

Feb 03 : THE way the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government Mark II has functioned since its inspiring victory in the Lok Sabha elections over eight months ago is most disappointing. It has not only belied all hopes of it being more cohesive and effective in discharging its functions this time around but also aggravated the main contradiction in Indian polity: the inevitability of coalitions in New Delhi for the foreseeable future and the utter lack of coalition culture that is showing no signs of developing either. Under these circumstances how can the country’s languishing governance be rescued?

Whatever might have happened in the states since the fourth general election in 1967, at the Centre the Congress had ruled by itself, despite its fractiousness and inner turmoil, for 30 years since Independence, its dominance of the national political landscape having become all the more impressive since 1971 after Indira Gandhi attained supremacy within both the Congress and the country.

The Janata Party that defeated her in 1977 largely because of her folly of imposing the Emergency pretended to be a single unit but was, in fact, a coalition of four constituents with different agendas and outlook. Despite its complacent belief in its durability, the Janata government collapsed in less than three years under the weight of clashing ambitions and irreconcilable conflicts between its three top leaders. The crowning irony was that Charan Singh brought down Morarji Desai’s government by seeking the support of Janata’s archenemies, Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay. He lasted less than a month.

No wonder Indira Gandhi returned to power in January 1980 and she and later her son Rajiv ruled the country for the next 10 years, to the dismay of those opposed to single-party dominance and yearning for a multi-party coalition. Their hopes started being revived, however, when Rajiv Gandhi began to lose his phenomenal popularity, especially after the Bofors affair. By then the former finance and defence minister in his Cabinet, V.P. Singh, had become the rallying point of all the political forces opposed to Rajiv and the Congress. The talk then was that coalitions would be a "blessing" because by giving all parties, big and small, due representation they would make the government "genuinely democratic". Unfortunately, something quite different happened.

The V.P. Singh government, elected amidst great goodwill and dependent on the opposite poles of the political spectrum, the Left Front and the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was at sixes and sevens from the word go. It fell in 11 months flat. Chandrashekhar did to V.P. Singh what Charan Singh had done to Desai, but within 120 days Rajiv Gandhi pulled the plug on him, too.

With Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to step into his shoes dawned P.V. Narasimha Rao’s moment. For full five years he ran a minority Congress government. This speaks well of his political skills but his methods were so appalling that he became the first former Prime Minister to be hauled to courts on criminal charges. After the defeat of Rao’s government in the 1996 election began the current coalition era that hasn’t done either India or the concept of coalitions any good. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s first government proved to be a 13-day wonder because no other political party or group backed it. The story of the "historic blunder" that prevented the towering Marxist leader, Jyoti Basu, from leading the United Front government is so well known that it needn’t be recounted. This conferred the office of Prime Minister on the darkest of dark horses, H.D. Deve Gowda. Since the United Front government was also dependent on the support of the Congress, both Mr Gowda and his successor, the likeable Inder Kumar Gujral, were ousted in just over a year.

In the election that followed, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), headed by Mr Vajpayee, came to power. He showed welcome capacity to keep together a motley crowd of 24 parties but his second government was brought down by Tamil Nadu’s imperious chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa, who withdrew support because Mr Vajpayee didn’t withdraw the corruption cases against her, initiated by M. Karunanidhi’s government preceding hers. In 1999 the Kargil War contributed to the NDA’s victory with a larger majority that made the Vajpayee government stable. But on at least a dozen occasions it was forced to roll back important decisions because of opposition from its allies, including Cabinet ministers. The most important ally, Chandrababu Naidu, without having any representation in the Union Cabinet, dictated to Centre over telephone. Six of BJP’s allies left the NDA, not after its defeat by UPA-1, but before it.

Neither the plight nor the performance of UPA-1 was any better. The Left Front that backed the Manmohan Singh government from outside broke with it with maximum acrimony over the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, that saved the government during the confidence vote in October 2008, lost little time in turning against it. Most notably several of the regional parties that were happily ensconced in the Vajpayee government had become members also of the UPA-1 and continue to be of the UPA-2. These allies ran their ministries like their fiefdoms. Some Congress ministers too did not acknowledge the Prime Minister’s captaincy of the team.

This state of affairs was expected to change during the UPA’s second innings but hasn’t. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is no longer the second-largest constituent of the coalition; Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress is. But her persistent and blind hatred of the Left Front ruling her state has often caused trouble and embarrassment to the Congress leadership. She runs the nation’s railways from Kolkata, not from Delhi. Mr Karunanidhi’s elder son M.K. Azhagiri runs his Central ministry from his bastion, Madurai. The newspapers have been so full of Sharad Pawar’s shenanigans in relation to soaring prices and other issues that there is no need to dilate on them. Each of the three most senior Congress ministers is said to be pulling in a different direction. And despite the best of relations between Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Congress Party distanced itself from Sharm el-Sheikh and is now doing so from the award of Padma Bhushan to the controversial NRI hotelier, Sant Singh Chatwal. As if the mishandling of the Telangana issue wasn’t enough, the Congress has done something as bizarre as having four chief ministers in Meghalaya. One hopes it is not a precedent for other Congress-ruled states, or the Centre.

By Inder Malhotra

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