New Delhi: Coalition governments have become the norm in India since the mid-1990s. And the last two, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), actually completed their full terms.
The 2009 Lok Sabha elections, which kicked off on Thursday, will in all likelihood deliver a fractured mandate, setting the stage for yet another coalition government.
But do smaller, regional parties get an adequate opportunity to voice their opinions and represent their regions in Parliament? How much do smaller parties participate in parliamentary proceedings?
Third force: (from right) A 12 March photo of JD(S) leader H.D. Kumaraswamy, BSP’s Satish Mishra, TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, CPM’s Prakash Karat, JD(S) supremo H.D. Deve Gowda, CPI’s A.B. Bardhan, and other leaders during the launch of the Third Front in Bangalore. Shailendra Bhojak / PTI
Data complied by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based independent research initiative, reveals that the participation of various parties is broadly proportional to their share of seats in the House—implying thereby that smaller and regional parties are, by and large, allowed to have their say in the House.
Among the larger parties, it is interesting to note that the Congress seems to punch below its weight. While its parliamentarians participated in 18.20% of all debates in the 14th Lok Sabha, they account for about 25.30% of the members in the Lok Sabha. In contrast, the Left parties, whose members of Parliament (MPs) account for 8.4% of House strength, participated in 12.90% of the debates.
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Similarly, the participation of smaller parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is higher than their seat shares. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), however, participated in fewer debates (1.9%) in the House compared with its seat share (3.6%).
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The growing importance and participation of regional parties in the country’s political framework becomes evident from the sharp increase in the number of regional/state parties that have participated in elections since 1952. While only 39 such parties contested in the first Lok Sabha elections, there were 224 regional/state parties in the fray in the 2004 elections.
This spurt began after 1989, with the number of regional parties jumping from 28 in the previous election year (1985) to 105. It was also the year when a coalition government held power, following the first one in 1977. In the 1989 elections, though Congress was the single largest party, it was unable to form a government with a clear majority.
The Janata Dal, a union of opposition parties, was able to form a government with the help of the BJP as well as the Left. This loose coalition collapsed in November 1990, and for a short period a breakaway Janata Dal group formed the government supported by Congress, with Chandra Shekhar as prime minister. However, that alliance too collapsed, resulting in a general election in 1991.
The years 1996 and 1998, too, saw unstable coalitions assume power.
According to Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor at the department of political science, Delhi University, who has also written a book on coalition politics in India, what explains the greater participation of regional parties in parliamentary debates is the existence of several regional issues.
“Why regional parties talk more than their seat share in Parliament is simply because they have come to Parliament on the basis of regional issues, which they have to bring up in the House. On the other hand, there are very few national issues for national parties to take up except, say, terrorism, the nuclear deal etc… Coalition politics is going to stay in India. One of the reasons is that the social base is so fragmented that no party, national or regional, can claim to have full control of any particular base,” says Chakrabarty.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint