Opinion | Don’t despair at the prospect of a coalition govt

PM Narendra Modi. (Mint)
PM Narendra Modi. (Mint)

A coalition govt may not do much good, but it will likely do less bad, than a single-party majority govt

It is a truism to say that a few months is a lifetime in Indian politics. Yet, if we attach some credence to the polls, statistical models and analyses of today, it appears that the Narendra Modi-led Union government is set tolose its historic parliamentary majority, with a range of possible outcomes—from a hung Parliament to one or the other of the two major national parties leading a coalition or even a “third front" patchwork quilt of regional and smaller parties with one or the major party as junior partner or possibly supporting it from the outside.

Whichever scenario pans out, what is almost certain is that whoever forms the government later this spring will not command Modi’s absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Many supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) view this possibility as a catastrophe, arguing that without Modi at thehelmwithastrongmandate,governance is doomed to go for a toss amid the squabbling of a many-headed hydra of a coalition government.

While this is clearly a politically self-servingargumentforBJPsupporters, the empirical record does not bear out the claim.

If anything, coalition governments (with or without a major national party as the focal point) have been no worse on average than single party governments and in some cases they have been markedly better, in particular on economic policy as one possible metric.

On the flip side, with his once-in-a-generation majority and clear mandate from the voters to act on his promises of economic reform and good governance, the Modi government demonstrates that single-party majority rule is not always what it is made out to be, especially in a Westminster system,

Withratherlimitedchecksandbalances as compared with, say, the US or other presidential systems.

The reality is that a Westminster parliament with a single-party majority, voting under whip, and a strong prime minister, is, in effect, a constitutional dictatorship—the decisions of the government held in check only by the judiciary and not by any other counterbalancing institutions (in the way that, say, US President Donald J. Trump is held in check today by Congress). This is not unique to India: for example, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ruled his Liberal party and the country with an iron fist from 1993 to 2003, so much so that he was often described as the “sun king" by analogy with French King Louis XIV. As for Modi, to what use did he put his thunderingmajority?Stickingtoeconomics, his reform agenda was remarkably timid, and his one bold experiment— demonetization— was more an exercise in reckless policy adventurism than it was based on sound economics. What ismore, it has clearly ended up a colossal failure, despite the hopes of many (including this writer) that good might have come out of this unorthodox experiment.

The sad truth is that Modi’s is the story of amandate squandered, much as Rajiv Gandhi squandered hishistoric mandate exactly30years earlier.

I write this with no joy, as someone who expected and hoped that Modi would act on his promises and fundamentally transform the Indian economy. Instead, as his term in officenearsanend,Modi has failed to rationalize and trim the Indian state—the government is more bloated and meddlesome than ever, thanks, in part, to the botched and cumbersome goods and services tax, the returnto import substitution,and thefailure to cut taxes and curb wasteful and burdensome regulation.

The reality is that there is no reason a coalition government could not have accomplished the Modi government’s more technocratic reforms, such as the bankruptcy code or the monetary policy framework, and it would most certainly have avoided the blunder of a risky and ill considered policy such as demonetization. The first rule for a physician is to do no harm, and the political economy of coalition politics is somewhat analogous—a coalition government may not do much good, but it will likely do much less bad, than a strong singleparty majority government.

If this sounds defeatist, it really is not. The clearlessongoingforwardisthatthefulcrum for economic reforms is going to be at the level of the states, not at the centre. While Modi promised “competitive/cooperative federalism" in the 2014 election, this turned out to be one of many promises to which he paid lip service rather than acted upon. To the contrary, Modi has been the most centralizing leader India has known since Indira Gandhi. A coalition government, without a single partyin majority and without a strong. And charismatic prime minister who wants to control everything, will give state chief ministers room to breathe and space to pursue their own public policy experiments, freed from constant meddling from the centre.

As I noted back in 2014, when I believed (wrongly) that this was to be Modi’s method, a genuine federalism will allow best practices to develop and percolate from the bottom up, rather than policies being forced upon states by a ham-fisted and all-controlling centre. This is most likely to occur under a coalition scenario which keeps policy at the centre in status quo mode, freeing up the states to do what they wish, with in the limits of the Constitution.

At the minimum, a centrist coalition formation will cut out the extremists, both far left and far right, who intellectually dominated the Manmohan Singh and Modi governments, respectively. That is not at all a bad prospect.

Vivek Dehejia is resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai.

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