Opinion | The positive side of having coalition governments4 min read . Updated: 04 Mar 2019, 10:46 PM IST
Multiparty governance may stall reforms but also prevent bad ideas from being rammed down by a strong executive
Conventional wisdom in India supports a single party emerging as the victor in elections, and a large party as opposition for the optimal functioning of Parliament and the government. A single-party government reduces the need to make political deals with coalition partners, and the legislative agenda of the government can be passed without any hold-outs. With an imminent general election, it is time to re-evaluate these long held ‘truths’. Given perverse incentives created by the anti-defection law, and in the absence of a proper check from the legislature, I argue that India needs coalition governments to check executive overreach.
The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had trouble from Left parties who held out on key legislative issues. The single-rate Good and Services Tax (GST) reform conceptualized by the UPA never found enough support to get off the ground. Worse still was the problem of political deals required to keep the coalition together, and the corruption among coalition partners.
So, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to get a majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014, Indians rejoiced. They anticipated a slew of reforms, without the usual political holdouts, and a strong leader taking India onto the next stage of development.
Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. India got its strong leader, but instead of reforms, it got policies that were supported by few, with little or no debate, that harmed most Indians. The most obvious of these was demonetization, but the list also includes a host of other policies, including the botched GST classification system, the Aadhar overreach by circumventing the Rajya Sabha and budgets full of loan waivers and freebies.
Part of the problem is Narendra Modi’s personality. He operates as a lone wolf, powering ahead without building allies or consulting coalition partners, or his party members. But the other problem is institutional. The Indian parliamentary system has not done well in checking the power of the Prime Minister.
In theory, in our parliamentary system, the legislature holds the executive accountable by asking specific questions in parliament, debating motions, and fine-tuning legislation through committees. In reality, the government, especially a single-party government, wins the vote on every motion because of strong anti-defection laws.
To resolve the problem of legislators switching parties for political gains, the parliament passed the 52nd Amendment in 1985, laying down the process by which legislators may be disqualified on grounds of defection. If a legislator voluntarily gives up the membership of their party, or disobeys the directives of the party leadership on a legislative vote, it is defection. While this was meant to prevent the practice of ‘horse-trading’, i.e. legislators switching political loyalty for money or political reward, on a day-to-day basis it prevented legislators from voting against their party’s official position.
Every party has a whip, which is used interchangeably for both the office and the order. Usually a senior member of the party is appointed whip to hold legislators to the party line. And the party’s whip issues a whip: the official position of the party on any particular legislative matter.
A legislator cannot disobey the whip without the fear of sanction under the anti-defection law. The result is that legislators always fall in line and vote the party position without opposition. At best, they may abstain from voting.
This problem is made worse because it is not mandatory in parliament or a legislative assembly to record each legislator’s vote on a particular motion, and most motions are carried by a voice vote. Votes of individual members are only recorded if any member asks for a division, i.e. asks the speaker to record the individual Ayes and Noes on a motion.
The consequence is that constituents of a legislator cannot easily find the voting record of their elected representatives to hold them accountable. The absence of voting records and the presence of an official whip create perverse incentives.
This has encouraged a centralized and anti-democratic culture in our parliament and legislative assemblies, and within individual parties. The whips of major parties are the most politically influential people in India.
Yet, no one asks a whip for a press conference or for an explanation of how the whip arrived at a particular position. The whip serves the leader of the party, and in the case of a single party government, the prime minister. While one hears reports of opposition within the BJP on demonetization and GST, there is no official record of this dissent, and there is no debate within the party on the floor of the house.
The purpose of the anti-defection law is to provide a stable government by preventing horse-trading. But in the process, it has suppressed parliamentary speech, debate and dissent, and severely restricted legislators from voting in line with their constituents.
In an ideal world, the 52nd amendment would be deleted, and parliamentary freedom reinstated. However, the political incentives to do so are extremely weak. No party whip would allow members to vote for a repeal. Every party hopes to form the government and, when it does, the constitutionally mandated whip helps pass the legislative agenda.
So, our next best hope is coalition governments. Coalition partners can prevent surprise moves like demonetization, which hurt most Indians. Coalition governments may prevent good reform, but, by the same principle, also prevent badly crafted ideas rammed down by a strong executive.
To rein in the next set of policy disasters, we must hope that no single party gets a majority.
Shruti Rajagopalan is an assistant professor of economics at Purchase College, State University of New York.