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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 24, May 30, 2009

Multiculturalism and Coalition Politics: The Indian Experience

Tuesday 2 June 2009, by Indrajeet Singh


The decade of the 1999s witnessed a major transformation in the political and social realm of the Indian society. The Indian state changed its strategy. It took steps towards a more liberal state. Now India is a market-oriented society. The market system is more open in comparison with the earlier period. New social groups are making their present felt. This is a harbinger of future political and social base in Indian society. It is an index which shows that future trajectories will be different from the past which were not open-ended. In the past, common people had to perform their action with certain strictures. A particular elite group of people had untrammelled powers. So the elite class misappropriated the rights of common citizens. This elite group demarcated the boundaries of rights of the underclass people. Though the Indian state was regarded as democratic, the praxis of democracy was limited in scope. It is interesting to note that the consciousness of the Indian people never enjoined them to give up the axioms of democracy. With the passage of time, democracy has been taking deep roots in Indian society. Some people regard Indian democracy tenuous and find it unsatisfactory.

Many people speculated after the disintegration of the Soviet Union that India might well disintegrate in future but nothing of that sort happened. Crises came and blew over with time. India is a plural society and, as a result, the state has to calibrate various interests existing in society. The crisis of governability which India has faced in the past is basically political in nature. “Detailed investigation of local, regional, and national politics leads to the proposition that the roots of Indian’s growing problems of governability are more political than socio-economic, that is, they are located mainly in Indian’s political structure. A highly interventionist state dealing with a poor economy has become an object of intense politic competition. The spread of egalitarian political values and the opportunities provided by democracy have, in turn, helped to transform what was once a heterogeneous social structure into many groups of mobilised activists. Failure of leaders to make timely concessions has only intensified political demands and activity.”1 If we see the overall picture of Indian democracy, we find that Indian democracy has been successful despite a low-income economy, widespread poverty and illiteracy, and immense ethnic diversity.2

In such a system, political parties play an important role in the life of citizens. Political parties work as an agency between citizens and the state. They operate as the protector of democratic norms. A major transformation has taken place in the party system in recent years. Parties are indispensible for a democratic state. They perform various functions. The modern political party basically performs three critical functions: nominating candidates for public offices; formulating and setting the agenda for the public; and mobilising support for candidates and policies in an election.3 Political parties are central to Indian political life. Their role in political mobilisation, governance, the formulation and implementation of economic and social policy, ethnic conflict, separatist movements, and the working of democracy has long been the focus of analysis.4 In the 1950s and 1960s the party system was not competitive. Citizens had a choice between the Congress and certain regional political parties. Electoral participation of citizens increased in the 1970s and 1980s. The period of the 1990s witnessed an upsurge in participation of people. Psephological studies are also on the increase. More and more participation on the behalf of citizens has led to the emergence of coalition politics. Social cleavages have played an important role in creating coalition politics in India.

All these developments raise questions like what are the conditions under which parties and the party system change? How has the party managed to cope with social change? How do we understand the contemporary party system and its impact on democracy?5 Under such circumstances, coalition politics has come to stay and is becoming a reality. All governments which have been formed after 1996 have been set up under the principles of coalition politics. So, the question arises: have the principles and rules of coalition formation established themselves in a proper way? It is very difficult to prognosticate as to how much time the political community will take to understand rules of the game.

There is another question which arises here: is coalition politics going in the right direction? It is sure that in India, civil society and political community cannot afford to eschew the politics of coalition but one fact cannot be avoided and that is that the multi-party system which is the foundation-stone of coalition politics has to go a long way yet. The recent history of India poses many questions:

“What impact would the process of economic liberalisation have on the functioning of the polity and on the development of a country which has entered the 21st century with the world’s largest population of the poor and the illiterate?

Will the political changes that have taken place lead to a greater integration of minorities and tribals within the national mainstream?

Will future governments be better able to reflect the aspirations of different regional and ethnic groups?

Will the redrawing of the internal political map of India be more than a cartographic exercise and heighten fissiparous tendencies?

And, will the aggravation of contradictions in the world’s second most populated country and arguably the most heterogeneous nation-state bring about its disintegration, as some have claimed from time to time?”6

National Minorities and the Concept of Multiculturalism

Nation-state is the key word for political scientists in today’s world. The nation-state is a state where citizens, generally speaking, share similarities in culture, history, traditions and compact geography. One can make sense of it only in the context of the European nations. But when we hold political discussions about the state emerging in the Asian continent or in African countries for that matter, we find that the nation-state has emerged under absolutely different conditions. In the European countries, the nation-state is the product of industria-lisation, science and technology. But in continents like Asia and Africa, its evolution is the result of freedom struggles launched by various kinds of groups which belonged to different cultures, values, traditions and, more importantly, they were from different geographical units and there was no concept of citizenship, civil society and classes, specially in the Indian context. So, when we look at the landscape of the Indian society, the Indian citizens find that our society consists of multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious groups. Hence, multiplicity and difference are the key concepts and the Indian civil society and political community must recognise such differences in our society because these constitute the magnificent heritage of our history.

Philosophers of the liberal tradition have always maintained that in a liberal democratic society, politics helps resolve all kinds of differences and people become key players in a market society. But one must remember that different sub-cultural and sub-national groups present a difficult challenge for the liberal market state from time to time.

In a liberal democratic society cultural rights have to be allowed to exist. The moment any government tries to check such tendencies, it stops being a genuine democratic state and becomes an authoritarian regime. So, here comes important the concept of multi-culturalism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the philosophical tools of interpretation of various aspects of politics were pushed into the background and a more scientific approach, which was based on facts and empirical observation, became the watchword among political scientists. But this trend did not continue for long, though it may have its own advantages in the realm of political science. The decade of the 1970s witnessed a shift in the field of political theory. Political philosophers started expressing dissatisfaction towards empirical methods of studying politics and they revived traditional methods, which were value-oriented, to study the field of politics. As a result, concepts like liberty, justice and equality took the driving seat.7 Though the liberal school of thought occupied a very important place in the history of political theory, it was challenged in the decade of the 1980s by some new theories like communitarianism and multi-culturalism.

In modern democratic societies, the traditional model of citizenship has faced challenges on two grounds: (a) Citizenship was not all about getting certain political, civil and social rights but it is also oriented towards duties and obligations, civic virtues and active political participation on the behalf of citizens.8 (b) The second challenge emphasises the need to supplement the focus on common rights with greater attention to cultural pluralism and group-differentiated rights.

This second challenge reflects a broad-ranging movement not only in political philosophy, but also in real-world politics. This movement has been discussed under various labels: the ‘politics of difference’, ‘identity politics’, ‘multiculturalism’, the ‘politics of recognition’. While each term carries slightly different connotations, the underlying idea is similar.9 It is easy to govern a society which consists of a group which shares common traditions, culture, values and language. But when the society is multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national, it poses difficulties in the process of nation building.

If we take a look at the Indian society, we find that our country falls under the above-mentioned category. The Indian state and political community have faced unavoidable difficulties regarding nation formation in the past. India is a society in which various kinds of groups with different culture, traditions, and values have been in existence for a long time. It is a multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society. It is noticeable that, no matter how much progress the Indian nation has made, there are many groups in the Indian society which still feel that they are not adequately represented and that their cultural rights are not protected in the process of nation building. It is unfortunate that many national minorities still feel marginalised and isolated. These groups, as we know, have presented a challenge to the Indian nation-state from time to time to gain the status of ‘differentiated citizenship rights’. It is not their socio-economic status which presents a problem but it is the socio-cultural identity which compels them to protest against the decisions taken by the national elite in the name of national unity and nation building.

So, multiculturalism can be a key to establishing a society in which various kinds of groups with different kinds of traditions, culture and identity can live in peace and harmony. This becomes possible by establishing a social order which is free from bias, prejudice and by giving differentiated citizenship rights to diverse cultural groups existing within the larger state.

Herein crops up another question: will multiculturalism erode the autonomy and rights of individuals within a particular group given by the Indian liberal democratic state? The answer is a definite no. We have also to make a distinction between two types of multiculturalism. Will Kymlika talks about backward looking or conservative and forward looking multiculturalism. The conservative form of multiculturalism is used by traditionalists to stop progressive change from taking place within the group. According to Will Kymlicka, this is ‘old-fashioned cultural conservatism dressed up in the new language of multiculturalism’.10 But this is not the only form of multiculturalism. We also witness progressive multiculturalist forces which take to liberal values to pose challenge to, what Will Kymlicka calls, ‘practices of exclusion and stigmatisation that prevent members of minority groups from fully enjoying their liberal rights and fair shares of resources’.11 He further maintains that ‘multiculturalism is the enemy of cultural conservatism and reflects and embraces the openness, pluralism, and autonomy that modernisation and globalisation entail’.12

The second category of multiculturalism suits the Indian society. It is progressive in nature and serves two purposes. In the first place, it protects the rights and identity of any given group, and in the second place, it gives protection to the individual’s autonomy, dignity, liberty and liberal rights by posing challenge to conservative traditions like sati, infanticide and oppression of women. So, there is much likelihood of the Indian society, instead of cultural conservatism, witnessing in future the liberal form of multiculturalism which fits within the framework of the liberal intellectual tradition.

It is a well-known fact that India is a society in which the state has to adjust various interests. For a such a society, it becomes absolutely essential that coalition politics takes proper shape. The present coalition politics suffers from many pitfalls. It gives birth to opportunism and horse-trading. It creates conditions in which even small political parties make governments unstable. But we have to keep in mind that a society like India which consists of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic groups requires that coalition politics which helps those social groups, which were in limbo earlier, to come forward. The need of the hour is that we should fix the rules and principles of coalition politics. It should be remembered that there should be pre-poll alliance so that citizens do not get confused. Besides, India should promote democracy to make coalition politics a genuine effort fulfilling narrow selfish interests.


1. Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability (Canada: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. ix.

2. Atul Kohli, ‘Introduction’, in Atul Kohli (ed.), The Success of India’s Democracy (Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 1.

3. Zoya Hasan, ‘Introduction’, in Zoya Hasan (ed.), Parties and Party Politics in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 5.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 7.

6. Paranjoy Guha and Shankar Raghuraman, A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand (Delhi, Sage Publication, 2004), pp. 58-59.

7. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Delhi: Universal Law Publication, 1971); Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books Publication, 1974).

8. Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, 2nd ed., (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 327.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 368.

11. Ibid., p. 369.

12. Ibid.

The author is a Lecturer, S.G.N.D. Khalsa College, Dev Nagar, New Delhi.

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