Satraps, Coalitions And Governance Of India
Even before the nation could decipher ‘didi’s’ (West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) perpetual ‘gussa’ (anger), Maratha chieftain Sharad Pawar, leading nine Lok Sabha MPs coming from Maharashtra (8) and Meghalaya (1) and seven Rajya Sabha MPs from these two States only who constitute Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) parliamentary group, is in sulk. NCP is blaming an arrogant and smug Congress to be ally-insensitive. The press reports began by suggesting his unhappiness over having been denied the number two slot in the Cabinet vacated by Pranab Mukherjee on being elected as the President of India. The Prime Minister reportedly promoted AK Antony to that slot, but the Congress denies any such slot and any elevation to it. Amidst denials of the NCP, and of Pawar himself, about this ‘conjecture’, reports of disaffection between the two allies in Maharashtra filtered in.
He and his party appear adamant on their public stance that the Congress does not treat its smaller UPA allies well; hence they would fight for self-respect, whether or not the number two slot goes to him. Though crisis managers on both the sides are working overtime to resolve the problem, loosening the intricate knots compounded over the years may not be easy. Even as Pranab Mukherjee was being sworn in as the new President of India, standoff continued, with Sharad Pawar and his colleagues boycotting ministerial work as well as both official and political functions. The rapprochement on Wednesday, July 25 with no major commitments and give-and-take indicated that neither the Congress, nor the NCP would like to rock the UPA boat till the next elections. Power is as much important for each of them in New Delhi, as in Mumbai.
Coalition Theories and the Indian Reality
This incident, as well as the continuing blow-hot-blow-cold interactions with West Bengal Chief Minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee, however, gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the emerging culture and compulsions of coalition in the country. More particularly, the options and strategies available with the national (or larger) party forming the coalitional axis to (a) keep the coalition partners happy and satisfied; (b) keep a balance between its own political interests and stakes in a state and that of the regional parties and the satraps, more particularly if one of the regional partners has formed the government in a particular state; (c) maintain policy coherence and pace amidst differing priorities; (d) appease the partners by turning a blind eye to any wrong doing, small and big, by their party members a phenomenon that is emerging all over the country; and (e) keep a viable and effective coordination process on. These incidentally would only be some of the doables that are acquiring noticeable magnitude lately.
Since political coalition has become the norm in India with the dawn of twenty-first century, whether for forming the government or in the opposition, and both the alternative space and the process of alternation in politics are going to be determined by coalitions, both norms and culture of coalition are significant for formation of sustainable coalition as well as cohabitation amongst the coalition partners for policy coordination and smooth functioning of a government. Looking through the prism of coalition theories, while the Indian political parties have graduated from forming post-poll coalitions to pre-poll coalitions which have sustained for over a decade now, post-poll adjustments are not out of vogue. This reflects brittleness of coalitions that need firming up against possible falling out of or wavering of the existing coalition partners. Ideology has for long ceased to be a basis for coalition formation.
Recent presidential election has brought out another fascinating aspect of Indian coalitions. Two of the NDA partners Janata Dal (U) and Shiv Sena voted for Pranab Mukherjee, ignoring the NDA candidate PA Sangma. On the other hand, perpetually fire spewing UPA partner Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee opted to float the name of former President APJ Abdul Kalam, who wisely declined the offer. Even for the Vice Presidential election she decided to spring an alternative name that of former West Bengal governor Gopal Gandhi, who too declined ignoring the UPA candidate Hamid Ansari. These are interesting trends that indicate a weak coordination mechanism by the nodal party and its coalition managers, inciting a partner to fall out on issues; not to speak of the tendency amongst the partners to politic with open options that keep the nodal party on tenterhooks and eternally on the placating mode. We should recall that during the 2009 general election the NCP, despite being in the UPA, hobnobbed with the Left Front that was leading a new concept of a third front as well as with Lalu Yadav and others who were opening a fourth front for a post-poll bargaining. Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan too kept their options open beyond the UPA by floating the fourth front without disowning the UPA.
Indeed, coalitions are not the most ideal situations that a political party would like to be in. While the conventional theory would dub coalitions as options of last resort under stress, the rational choice theories would consider them ‘rational solutions under conditions of competition rather than conflict.’ Obviously, the theories do not consider coalitions as the ideal situation for power competition. British constitutional expert Vernon Bagdonor details three coalition situations (i) supporting a coalition government, (ii) coalescing of political parties on a common programme; and (iii) defections, mergers, or fusions form or amongst political parties.
Indeed, each one of the conditions that have been stated in various theories and conceptual expositions, appear to be close to Indian reality. While each of the three situations mentioned by Bagdonor have been experienced in India, coalitions began to be a choice under political stress since 1967, but now coalition making is emerging as a rational choice, as competition does not give enough political space to the parties of national stature. What perhaps deserves to be added here is that for the state/regional parties, coalition has emerged as a rational choice as their own political turf and strength at the national stage would not give them the space and leverage to share power. No wonder they pursue coalition options rather vigorously and use the significance of their small critical strength to bargain for power and other emerging political advantages on the national stage. Further, this also has seeds of contradictions that bring in imbalances in state and national politics.
Even as the crisis between the Congress and the NCP got resolved, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had a dig at the NCP on Sunday 29 July in Mumbai by referring to small parties with nine Lok Sabha seats and three seats in the Union Council of Ministers. Significantly, it is not clear on what terms both the sides called truce, because despite the mention of a coordination committee each in New Delhi and Mumbai, there is nothing in the public domain to suggest that any visible step has been taken, or any institutional mechanism has been created. Incidentally, the country should surely welcome the idea, rather than insist on it, of an institutional structure for managing coalitions for policy coherence and meaningful governance, the intricacies of political competition notwithstanding. Neither should the nodal party (Congress in the present case) be given a sleight of hand vis-à-vis smaller partner, nor should the tantrums of the Mamatas, the Pawars or the Jayalalithas of India’s political world be given space. Though the parties and leaders being what they are would indeed play their games, the voters deserve neat and coherent governance. While analysing the present predicament, we must not forget that in 1998-99 George Fernandes functioned almost as the Minister-in-charge for Jayalalitha affairs camping in Chennai frequently to placate her, she still decided to vote against the NDA and force an avoidable mid-term poll on the nation. During the NDA-II in 1999-2004, Mamata Banerjee threw frequent tantrums.
Despite the UPA winning two consecutive terms in 2004 and 2009 (both seemed surprise victories), coalition management by the Congress has always been criticised. In 2004, in Maharashtra the NCP emerged as the larger party than the Congress in the coalition, the Congress nevertheless extracted the Chief Ministerial chair. On several occasions and in several instances the party appeared to take the partners for granted and did not display the magnanimity of the senior partner in decision making. Obviously, self-perceptions emerging from the past, a better performance in 2009 and considerations of turf advantage appeared to affect the judgment of its leaders and political managers. In the present case too, Pawar, who left the Congress to form NCP in 1999 with the plea to project an Indian born leader as the prime ministerial candidate, has had the grudge of being sidelined by his own party for the leadership position on several occasions. Under the circumstances, power sharing and cohabitation have rested on a shaky ground.
The NCP has remained a part of the UPA since 2004 and even during the present crisis the party has stated unequivocally of its support to UPA in 2014. However, time and again the issues of the Congress’s coalition management and its treatment of the allies have been raised by the party and him personally. While dealing with the issue the party has complained of the streak of unilateralism in the Congress, which is not good. Mamata Banerjee to embarrassed the Prime Minister, the UPA and the Congress when she declined to be part of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s entourage to Dhaka to discuss Teesta water sharing by alleging unilateralism. It is a different matter that she has deliberately indulged in unilateralism in dealing with the Railway ministry and recently in floating Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees independent of the UPA. The most discourteous, blatantly anti-coalition and completely against the spirit of the Constitution, Cabinet government and institutional sanctity was her move to ‘remove’ the Railway Minister in the middle of the budget session. While blaming the Congress for having ignored her party’s ‘no rise in passenger fare’ stand, she refused to discuss with the Congress and UPA leaders the rationale for a moderate rise. Though coalition politics in any case compromises with the established principles of cabinet government even from the minimalist point of view, a patent disregard for its functioning in public is unhealthy for constitutionalism in India.
It is not clear as yet whether the NCP-Congress tiff is dissolved. For, at the root of the crisis somewhere the Maharashtra politics lurked insidiously. Chief Minister Chavan’s tongue-in-cheek comment indicates discomfort. The media reports referred to several cases of corruption many of them blatant by the NCP ministers that created unease in the Congress camp. Since corruption as a nationwide phenomenon affects most of the political parties, we can surmise that in this case either it is really too blatant, or the Congress is using it to neutralize Pawar and his party for its own power considerations. In any case, having a reputation of being a good administrator, Sharad Pawar is believed to be only a shadow of himself in recent years. At one time he appeared to display greater interest in the Board of Control of Cricket in India than the ministry he headed. Both agriculture and food policies in his regime have come under critical lenses.
It is not easy to look through the current mess from the perspective of emerging trends in Indian national and state politics, whether or not this problem has been resolved. Since coalition politics has come to exist in India and 2014 election is likely to bring only a variant of this, political parties big and small must learn to develop norms to operate it in a way that constitutionalism is strengthened in the country. Politicking of the kind that has come to be displayed by parties big and small is only likely to weaken institutions, which would impact Indian democracy in the long run. Principles of power sharing and cohabitation deserve special attention in this respect.
By Ajay K Mehra
(The writer is honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)