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Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, No 14, March 26, 2011

Coalition Politics and Good Governance

Monday 28 March 2011, by Indrajeet Singh


Recently the Prime Minister said that corruption was a by-product of coalition politics. This raises the following questions: does corruption take place only under coalition politics? Was corruption absent earlier when there was dominance of the Congress? There were dishonest actions under the governments of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Then why has a person like Manmohan Singh made such a reckless statement? It is an open declaration against those classes which are marginalised and have just started emerging on the Indian political scene. Such a premise leads to the establishment of the monopoly of national elites and it is an effort to keep away the different social groups from the fruits of politics. It is an effort to suppress the voices of those who are lately attempting to make claims upon the resources of politics and the state. Earlier these people were kept away from the political structure. In contemporary times, the regional political parties have become an inescapable force and coalitional politics has become an actuality. Can coalitional politics and good governance go hand in hand? Yes they can. Much depends upon the goodwill of the politicians who are participating in the political system.

Party systems take very complex shapes in a society where parties represent multiple interests, identities and cultures. It requires special understanding to grasp the meaning of complexities and interactions of the parties operating in a multicultural society like India. In such a society different social groups interact with each other in the form of political parties. These political parties clash with each other many a time due to different ideals and power realism at various levels. At the same time, these political parties, representing various social groups, reach some kind of understanding and this tendency of co-operation leads to the formation of coalition building at both levels: Centre and State.

Recently, India is witnessing an alliance between national and regional parties that was absent in Indian society earlier. Though the country had experienced coalition governments at the State level, such a practice was not explored before 1977 at the national level. This process began in 1977 when the Janata Party came to power. It started taking roots in Indian society from the year 1989 in the real sense of the term, when the National Front assumed power under the leadership of V.P. Singh. Such a possibility had not been explored earlier because the Congress had been playing a dominant role at the Centre.

IN the 1990s, the Indian party system drastically shifted from one-party dominance to a multi-party system. In 1996, the Indian society witnessed a coalition government at the Centre. In addition to this, the BJP came to power at the Centre with the help of regional parties in the years 1998 and 1999 respectively, thereby giving the Indian federal model a new shape. This manifested co-operation between the Central Government and regional parties which was absent earlier in Indian politics. This experiment was unique in the sense that for the first time in the history of independent India, a coalition government completed its full term of five years. The process of fragmentation of the Indian party system is still in process and it seems that it will continue in the near future as well.

Under such circumstances, the question arises: how are regional and national parties changing their attitude towards each other? They are heading towards co-operation rather than confrontation.

The decade of the 1990s witnessed a major transformation in the political and social realms of Indian society. The Indian state changed its strategy. It took steps towards the more liberal state. Now India is a market oriented society. The market system is more open in comparison to the past. 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, the common people had to perform their work 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 under-class people. Though the Indian state was regarded as democratic, the praxis of democracy was limited in scope. 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 as tenuous and find it unsatisfactory. Many people speculated that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union India might also disintegrate in the near future, but nothing of that sort happened. Crises developed but also blew over with time.

When the society consists of multicultural and multilingual groups, regionalism becomes one of the essential features of the political system, and as a result, the state has to give way to sub-national and sub-cultural movements launched by regional forces to keep the society democratic and united.

In recent years, India has witnessed remarkable economic progress. The lower caste groups and backward classes are becoming aware of their political and social rights. Middle class farmers have achieved the status of capitalist farmers thanks to the Green Revolution. New elite classes are emerging on the map of Indian society replacing the vital or privileged position of the old elite class. So, the role of regional political parties is becoming more significant and these new classes have been trying to fulfil their dreams and expectations with the help of regional parties by participating in national politics.

Though it is very difficult to make any definite conceptualisation of the Indian political party system, one thing is clear—some of the earlier concepts are no longer valid. Rajni Kothari’s “Congress system”, W.H. Morris-Jones’ “one- party dominant system”, and Giovanni Sartori’s “predominant party system” have lost their importance in the Indian context.

In the recent past India has gone through coalition-building at the national level. The NDA completed its full term of five years in 2004 and the UPA completed its full term of five years in 2009. Both the governments have been highly dependent upon their alliances with various regional political parties. This proves the point that coalition-building is taking roots in Indian society and the party system is getting federalised with increasing role and power share of the regional parties in national coalition politics.

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 out of it only in the context of 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 European countries, the nation-state was the product of industrialisation, 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 have a look at the landscape of Indian society, the Indian citizens find that our society consists of multicultural, multilingual and multireligious groups. So, multiplicity and differences are the key concepts.

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.

So one must understand that under the present circumstances, coalition politics has become inevitable and it can lead to the establishment of good governance as different social groups get opportunities to reshape the agenda of good life. It ensures more and more participation of diverse groups. It also makes possible the reconciliation of regional interests with national interests, something that was not there in earlier times. To conclude, there is no natural link between coalition politics and corruption, rather coalition politics is making Indian society more democratic, integrated and politically aware. Coalition politics also helps avoid unwarranted elections upon the people. If India has to have a corruption-free society, the politicians will have to change their attitude towards politics. Politics is a conduit to serve the nation and its people. It is not an instrument to make unlimited pecuniary gains.

The author is a Lecturer at the Delhi University. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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