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Deaths Knell For India’s Third Electoral System?

Updated: November 29, 2014 5:00 am

Since 1989, Indian politics has been marred by increasing fragmentation, more competitive elections, a growing role for regional parties, halting voter turnout, and, of course, coalitions at the centre. The 2014 election represents a surprising reversal of these traits

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) emphatic victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections reopened the question of alliances amongst various political parties in the country. In the results declared in May this year, the BJP, which went into the polls with a clutch of pre-poll partners under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) umbrella, managed to garner 282 seats on its own and 336 with its allies. This is the first time after 1984 that a single party has crossed the 272 mark on its own. In contrast, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which counted the support of more than 300 Members of Parliament (MPs) in 2009 when it was re-elected for a second five-year term, was reduced to a historic low of 60 in 16th Lok Sabha. The election results had thrown Indian politics into a flux.

India’s first coalition government— that of the Janata Party headed by Morarji Desai—took office in 1977 but could not stay longer than two years despite a change in prime minister. The next coalition National Front government was formed in 1989 led by Prime Minister V.P. Singh. This government—which also saw a change in prime minister— did not last more than two years either. The following government, which came to power in 1991, was a minority Congress government supported from the outside by parties but lasted its full term. National polls in 1996 produced a fractured verdict and the United Front government, also a coalition, collapsed within two years of coming to power. Mid-term polls saw the BJP come to power with the help of a dozen coalition partners but the government lost a confidence vote in Parliament within 13 months but came back with a renewed mandate and went on to give the country the only stable coalition government that completed its full term of five years. In the 2004 national polls, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government came to power after forging a pre-poll alliance. The alliance won a renewed mandate in 2009. But weighed down by a series of corruption allegations, the UPA managed to garner 60 seats in the General Elections 2014.

For the past two and a half decades, Indians have been living under what has come to be known as the country’s “third electoral system,” which began in 1989 with the dawn of coalition politics and has persisted over a quarter century.

What is striking about the recent election is just how many of the core attributes of this system have been challenged. Since 1989, Indian politics has been marred by increasing fragmentation, more competitive elections, a growing role for regional parties, halting voter turnout, and, of course, coalitions at the centre.

The 2014 election represents a surprising reversal of these traits. Fragmentation has diminished considerably, while the rise of regional parties has been arrested; elections actually were less competitive than in recent years. Furthermore, turnout hit a record high, while a coalition arrangement in Delhi proved to be not so foreseeable after all.

The fever of General Elections might be over but the results have marked the start of a new era. The majority win of Narendra Modi shows the people’s anger against the Congress-led UPA policies and the form of coalition government. Modi has got a huge support right from his campaigning days and it is even getting stronger day by day. The mandate has provided him with the golden opportunity to put his thoughts into real actions, where he might not require any kind of bargaining with the heavy weight regional players. Does it suggest that the era of coalition politics is over now?

Though the 2014 election repudiated many of the tenets of the third electoral system, it’s too soon to proclaim the death of coalition politics. The nature of the polity remains federalised on several counts. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is governing with a coalition — not out of necessity, but out of choice. It recognises that in several states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Seemandhra, regional allies serve as crucial keystones.

Second, because the BJP lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha, it must embrace the coalition spirit if it hopes to save any meaningful legislative agenda. Given its fragmented nature and staggered six-year term, the Rajya Sabha’s composition will change only gradually.

Finally, increasing decentralisation means that the states are where many of the innovative ideas of Modi may not gather the required momentum. Narendra Modi can take certain steps to jump-start India’s economy but at the end of the day, it is in state capitals where the real game will be played. Building ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” with key chief ministers will be a necessity. In a sense, substantive coalition building may replace formal coalition making.

It is true that in the last three decades coalition politics played a vital role in the Indian politics. When suddenly BJP got absolute majority it was very natural that some people started predicting the end of the coalition government. But, we have to remember that BJP obviously won in a large – scale manner but it would not have been possible without its coalition partners. Because when a coalition contests an election the vote share of all parties in the coalition come together and paves the way to victory. Some experts believe that if BJP would have contested this election alone then it would have got very lesser number of seats than that it has now in the Lok Sabha. So it is clear that other coalition parties had played an important role to boost BJP.

It is difficult to make any prediction on the political future of the nation. For how many would have thought that the once mighty Congress would be reduced to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha? The answer to whether India returns to the era of coalition politics is partially hidden in the next five years. If the Narendra Modi government steers the nation towards a satisfactory goal till 2019 and repeats its poll performance of 2014, the chances of fragmented mandate regaining relevance will be lesser. But if there is an opposite story, then there is every possibility of a reverse consequence. The performance of the Modi government in the next five years will be challenged by the old school of applied politics in India and the winner of this tussle will determine the future of coalition politics in this country.

The Congress had lost the plot in Indian democracy because it didn’t prioritise decentralisation since the family rule took over and soon the grassroots pillar of the umbrella organisation collapsed, allowing regional leaders to cash in on the economic backwardness of their region by calling for social and political empowerment. This pattern gradually led to the strengthening of coalition politics in India at the expense of a weak Congress system. Today, the BJP has emerged as an alternative to the Congress that had once propagated inclusivism in the true sense and it has an enormous task in its hand to ensure that the social fault lines are eroded effectively so that the politics of dividing vote-banks meets its end. Democracy definitely signifies empowerment but that empowerment should be economic to begin with so that it doesn’t put the nation’s stability at peril.

By Nilabh Krishna

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