Editor’s Note: Saba Naqvi’s ‘Politics of Jugaad’ asks some of the most important questions in this election season. Examining the history of coalition governments in India, Naqvi tries to understand the strengths and pitfalls of such governments. While coalition governments often tend to be ‘unstable’, Naqvi analyses if coalition governments are a better bet for a country as diverse as India.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
The narrative trotted out by many in the mainstream media today makes coalitions sound almost dangerous for the country. The charges are that they are inherently unstable and extractive in nature, implying that smaller players are in a position to blackmail the larger party at the centre of a coalition. Some critiques are valid but there is also an exaggerated fear of coalitions. The truth is that many of us have grown up under coalitions— the only thing is we did not perceive it that way. We thought we were under the Manmohan Singh or the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, identifying a complex regime with a single individual, when, in fact, we have mostly had coalition rule in India since 1989. A change did take place in 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a simple majority in Parliament. It is since then that the narrative by some sections of the media began to posit single-party rule under a strong leader as the only answer for India.
The fascination with a ‘great leader’, such as Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, is now quite pervasive. The words used for him are ‘decisive’, ‘strong’ and an ‘individual with authority’. In the past, Indira Gandhi would have fit the same mould. I started work on this book by looking up the meanings of ‘coalesce’ and ‘coalition’. Briefly, this is what I got from my search. The word ‘coalesce’, I had imagined, could come from the collision of two objects.
However, it means something a little different. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘coalesce’ means to combine into a single group or thing. A coalition, we quite well understand in India, means the joining together of different political parties or groups. India is the world’s second-most populous country and its largest democracy. It is, in a sense, a coalition of states where people speak different languages and have different linguistic and cultural histories. Yet, coalitions somehow have a bad association in some of our minds as being inherently unstable. It is, however, true that in the past, it is only coalitions with a large party as the pivot that have survived their terms. Looking into the future, one can suggest that a mere collection of regional parties is unlikely to survive a term, as the orientation of each constituent would only be towards their region and perhaps not towards the nation as a whole. Still, it is better to recognize that anything can happen and there are no hard and fast rules.
The most common charge levelled at coalitions is that they are bad for governance. But when we examine economic data, it turns out that some of our most prosperous years have been under coalition governments. Being a non-expert on economy, let me refer to others.
According to a detailed report published in The Economics Times on 29 September 2017, a coalition government that had consensus on policymaking was probably better than the one with a majority, as far as economic growth went. Former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Y.V. Reddy, who headed the institution from 2003 to 2008, told the audience while speaking at the Hudson Institute, a top American think tank in Washington D.C., that since economic liberalization, which began under the premiership of P.V. Narasimha Rao, India’s GDP growth rate was the highest in the fiscal year 2007, when it touched 9.6 per cent under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Manmohan Singh. ‘Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments,’ Reddy said. ‘So, in a way, it is consensus-based… In [the] Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government.’ He is not the only individual to have said this—other economists and commentators have noted this too, that coalitions do not suggest poor economic growth.*Besides, there are other values, such as equality, that are difficult to measure, which coalitions can bring to the table.
In an age where they are also an outcome of very legitimate electoral processes, one can argue that coalitions can be fundamentally more just and representative than single-party regimes. Coalitions give real clout to state parties and thereby to the people of the regions. One could, therefore, argue that, theoretically, the most representative regime that a country like India could have is a coalition of state parties. Take out a hundred-rupee note and look at the picture of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on the right; at the centre, ‘100 rupees’ is written in bold, in Hindi; turn the note around, and on the left-hand corner, there is a small column that has ‘100 rupees’ written in fifteen Indian languages.
The currency we handle every day takes note of our extraordinary social composition as a nation: We have several languages with their own scripts and literature (besides the many dialects within the languages). My question then is this: Why should a party that performs well in the Hindi-speaking parts of India inevitably end up leading the nation? Some of our most significant political leaders have repeatedly got elected from Uttar Pradesh (UP)—Jawaharlal Nehru (Phulpur), Lal Bahadur Shastri (also from seats around Allahabad), Indira Gandhi (Rae Bareli, though she contested once from Chikmagalur in Karnataka), Rajiv Gandhi (Amethi), Vishwanath Pratap Singh, or V.P. Singh (Allahabad), Chandra Shekhar (Ballia), Sonia Gandhi (Rae Bareli), Vajpayee (Lucknow) and PM Modi (Varanasi).
With the exception of Sonia Gandhi, all the others have been PM. H.D. Deve Gowda from Karnataka, Narasimha Rao from Andhra Pradesh and Morarji Desai from Maharashtra also became prime ministers. Manmohan Singh was a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) and Inder Kumar Gujral had once contested a Lok Sabha poll from Jalandhar in Punjab. I have been raised in Delhi, but UP is where my family comes from, scattered across towns in Awadh with an ancestral village in the Rae Bareli district. I love the state and I understand its language, idioms and cultural tones. It has also given me an education on the politics of caste and community. But it is a backward and poor society, and has not made any impressive progress on indices such as health and education. It has also not had any significant economic growth, and joblessness is rampant, as is crime.
Yes, it is the country’s most populous state, with a population higher than many large nations’. In 2014, Modi, the former Gujarat chief minister for twelve years, left his home state and stood from the parliamentary seat of Varanasi in UP when he made the successful bid for prime ministership. Varanasi (or Kashi), the holy town by the Ganges, has an all-India symbolism that pervades the consciousness of many Hindus, particularly those from the upper castes. As we head towards the elections in 2019, Ayodhya in UP, not far from my family village, is again being presented as an all-India symbol embodying Lord Ram, in an attempt to create a certain religious-political consciousness.
Yet, it is a valid question for us to ask: In principle, why can we not have a prime minister from Vadodara
in Gujarat, the other seat Modi stood from in 2014 and subsequently gave up? Why is it outside the realm of probability that a PM could come from Tamil Nadu or Kerala or the Northeast? Do we believe that a leader who represents the Hindi-speaking regions is more representative of India than those from other regions? It is, however, states in southern and western India that have far better economic growth. One must wonder if, at some point, other parts of India will resent the sheer political clout of the complex but backward state of UP. This is happening in Europe, where, within nations such as Spain, the more prosperous parts are beginning to resent carrying the can for the rest of the country. But as things stand today, UP will yet again have a big bearing on the 2019 election, as the ruling party, the BJP, got most of its MPs from the state in 2014.
In the 2014 general elections, the BJP won a simple majority with a vote share of 31 per cent in the first-past-the-post system that India follows, because the votes of the Opposition parties were divided. It was one of the more successful conversions of votes to seats in our country’s history. The Congress had a dismal showing in 2014, with just 19 per cent of the votes and its lowest tally of 44 seats in Parliament.
But combine the vote shares of the two pre-eminent national parties, and it was 50 per cent. That shows that even in a national election, where people voted for a government at the Centre and not in the states, other parties got the remaining 50 per cent, or half the votes. There is, therefore, a great legitimacy to our search for a coalition that is truly representative and stable. But there are pitfalls to this exercise due to the competing interests and egos of those who lead political parties.
The following excerpt from Politics Of Jugaad by Saba Naqvi has been published with permission from Rupa Publications. The hardcover of the book costs Rs 395.