The 2019 general elections seem to be headed for a fractured mandate which would renew the coalition era that began in the late 1980s, but was interrupted in 2014 by a Narendra Modi wave and the majority secured in parliament by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader M. K. Stalin’s statement not long ago that his party won’t abandon its Congress partnership in a coalition arrangement appears to have ended all prospects of a non-Congress, non-BJP coalition at the centre, for which Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao has been on a mobilizing mission in recent days. But is a coalition government inherently bad for Indian democracy?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has campaigned on security issues triggered by the Pulwama attack, perhaps to hide his regime’s performance on his 2014 vikas agenda. In contrast, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who led a coalition government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) from 2004 to 2009, returned to power in 2009 on the back of its achievements. Many would argue that Dr. Singh’s record in his first term was way better than that of the Modi regime, despite the latter’s one-party majority government. In short, India’s experience does not support the thesis that coalition governments are innately bad. Critics of one-party majority governments often cite the excessive abuse of President’s Rule during Indira Gandhi’s time as one of its shortcomings, a practice that the coalition era has effectively ended.

At present, two possible scenarios exist for India after 23 May. The first is the return of Modi as the Prime Minister of a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. Given the firm grip that Modi and Amit Shah have over their party, a BJP-led NDA cannot have anyone other than Modi as Prime Minister. Alternatively, there is a possibility of a UPA coalition led by a leader of the Congress or some other party.

Modi and Shah have repeatedly appealed to voters not to vote for a UPA option, mocking it as a maha milawati (highly mixed up) alliance. Cited in support are the bickering and instability of past coalition governments that took office in 1977, 1989 and 1996. What, however, is never mentioned is that the BJP was part of two such unstable governments: the V. P. Singh-led National Front in 1989 and the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government in 1977. In 1975-77, the BJP, in its earlier Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) avatar, had merged with a broad Janata coalition and was part of the Desai regime. Thus, the BJP has been part of a khichdi in the past and cannot brush aside its own contribution to instability.

Observers recognize Modi’s adamance as a vital attribute of his personality. Also, he is seen as decisive by some and vindictive by others. But the management of a coalition government calls for an accommodative spirit. This comes in handy in dealing with what Dr. Singh described as the compulsions of a coalition. Modi’s ability to cope with these remains untested. A similar possibility could arise in the case of a UPA government, though for reasons of the varying ambitions of regional leaders, as witnessed in 1977 or 1996. In both scenarios of either an NDA or UPA coalition, there is a fair chance of a mid-term election. If it happens on account of UPA instability, it would present Modi with the opportunity of claiming an Indira moment: recall the way she returned triumphant in 1980 after the Janata coalition collapsed. If it forms a government, the UPA would have to be careful not to allow such an outcome, for a mid-term poll under those circumstances could mean an ever-larger majority for the Modi-led BJP, because it would provide credibility to his mahamilawati accusation. At this point, however, Modi and Shah’s recent spat with Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati has created a favourable climate for the UPA as it has deepened anti-Modi and anti-BJP sentiments in their parties.

Regardless of the results on 23 May, the BJP will remain India’s most dominant party in the coming years. For the Congress, it is crucial to increase its tally to, say, 140 or 150 seats, if it is to sustain itself as the leader of the UPA. Only such a number would let it outweigh the claims of key anti-BJP regional players, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Trinamool Congess (TMC), and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The Congress’s failure to stitch up a coalition in West Bengal, Delhi, and even Uttar Pradesh would have a direct bearing on its final tally this time. Comparatively speaking, the BJP can bounce back from setbacks far more easily than the Congress. Whatever electoral success the Congress has achieved lately in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan was driven more by anti-incumbency factors than the grand old party’s historical dominance. Yet, most regional parties are single-state based, with little prospects of further expansion, which works as a boon for the Congress in retaining its place as the UPA’s leader.

A stable government might have its own benefits, but less stable governments are not threats to democracy. The Desai government (1977-1979), for example, undid regressive laws enacted by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency. By the same logic, if a future UPA government were to address issues such as lynching or sedition laws, these would be crucial interventions in India’s governance, especially consequential for citizens ranged against the perpetuation of majoritarianism.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi, and is the editor of the volume ‘Rise of Saffron Power’

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