The coalition history of India is more than four decades at the centre showed that it is not the cultural homogeneity which is a requisite for political stability and integration. The chances of stable democracy are enhanced to the extent that the group has a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations.
In today’s India it can be said safely that coalition politics has come to settle at the Indian federal level and that it cannot be viewed as a sudden and unexpected development but on a deeper analysis, it is reflective of a societal metamorphosis: wherein day by day larger number of hitherto latent groups of Indian society are getting mobilized and politicized. In the new coalition phase what is under challenge is the status quo and hence unequal and unjust division of rewards and benefits.
In today’s society especially having multi-layered caste and religion background, it is quite possible to have a fractured mandate in which government is formed on “Common Minimum Programme”. India is fortunate in the sense that its ethnic divides-linguistic, religious and caste – do not reinforce one another as they do in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Israel, and Sudan. However, a powerful salience of religion, in particular, divides the present Indian society, creating fissures not only between the majority and minority but also within the majority.
Developing dimensions of Indian coalition
In Western democracies, politics is followed by a decline of religious influence in public life, but in a country like India, in which a strong religious culture is dominant democratic politics would show the imprint of popular religious notions. All these alterations began to reflect in Indian politics in the form of style, language and modes of behavior. These developments brought major changes in forming government, its running and completing its tenure. Under it, alliances either pre or post is the feature of today’s politics.
The last decades and contemporary politico-electoral developments reveal that the way to power in a plural society like India lies in the creation of political, regional and social alliances. The vastness and diversity of the country and the enormity and variegated nature of the problems confronting the country will make it unlikely for the emergence of two well organized parties even in foreseeable future.
In fact, the immense social plurality in India will obviously reflect itself in its polity. It is only natural that under these conditions various parties may garner the confidence of sections of this vast social diversity and thus no single party may acquire the requisite majority to form its own government. However, the contemporary scenarios of politics have contributed to a definite change in the level of political socialization, intense articulation, interest aggregation and political communication. In every polity, there is a period of political stagnation, uncertainty, and instability to conclude. India is a developing democracy where democratic traditions are evolving with the passage of time.
The brief history of coalition governments in India also shows the pit fall in coalition politics. Even though coalition system is the only system that can operate in Indian politics, it is also the system that is beset with innumerable problems. Everyday the fall of such coalition hangs in the balance depending on the withdrawal of support by one or the other. Under it, securing a consensus within parties is a very difficult task. The usual reason for detesting coalitions is due to the reason that they have come together only for power. Since they are heterogeneous, they are both ineffective and unstable. Each coalition partner tends to suspect the other.
If the government is efficient, each constituent partner is worried that the other will get the credit. On the other hand, if it is ineffective, each partner will blame the other and as a result, the coalition government remains weak. In addition are the issues related to power, ideological differences among political parties, regional and national outlook which the political parties represent and shifts of power from cabinet to an extra constitutional authority like the coordination or steering committee.
But, despite its apparent shortcomings and limitations, the coalitions provide the only feasible and viable alternative in a parliamentary democracy and provide a safeguard against the collapse of a democratic setup. It makes democracy more participative as every small faction gets represented and heard in the legislature. It gives chance to regional parties to participate in national politics and there is less chance of one party dominance.
Thus, consensus, understanding and tolerance become the watchwords of a successful coalition. Of the two faces of coalition, India has taken its positive stand which reflects people’s verdict more sincerely because diversity on the basis of caste, class, religion, region and is its language basic socio-political root, which it cannot deny.
2014 and 2019 in comparison
Today’s alliances and coalitions are not the same as those of the 1970s and 1980s, when they were hastily cobbled together to fight one particular party or the other. But in present context’s politics ‘Your enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and they all come to agree on a common agenda, goal and articulation. Today, it also means that alliances and coalitions that are there has to be respect for, and representation of, social dynamics and political non-cohesion of communities that are large and small — and not just religious or ethnic minorities and those that can punch above their weight.
In the past, we have seen BJP and non-BJP coalitions with different ideologies and political parties coming together in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and in Meghalaya, as well as in Nagaland and Manipur. Some have performed better than others, partly because they have longer experience in ‘adjusting’ to each other’s needs like an older married couple where each respects the other’s autonomy. That doesn’t mean that they don’t quarrel or don’t have strong differences. They do. But they don’t, for the most part, divorce or desert their partner, because they’ll be pretty lost outside and fall into acute depressive conditions.
Earlier, the election of 16th Loksabha held in 2014 was a trailor of coalition politics to be emerged in India. It clearly showed the coalition features of coming India.
For example, one, it clearly indicated that the era of single-party dominance seems to have stabilised quite comfortably. Two, the relation between national parties and State parties continues to be reworked, possibly to the disadvantage of State parties. The additional votes polled by the BJP are at the cost of the State parties rather than the Congress. Three, the results have left the Congress in disarray. It may have added a few more seats to its total tally this time, but the losses in State after State practically make the party ineffectual. An extraordinary feature of this election was the fact that everything began and ended with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In short, the 2019 election was a replay of the 2014 election — deep changes are taking place in the arena of competitive politics and in the political process generally.
New factors at work
This churning of the polity has three dimensions. One, the nature of political competition has changed. This election began with the appearance of a strong fight by the Congress which could have ensured a somewhat bipolar political competition in the future. While the Congress failed, the non-BJP alliances too had limited traction, except in Kerala where the alliance continues to work and even barred the BJP’s entry.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK alliance worked, but more because of the mild assertion of Dravidian exceptionalism. This aspect of the churning is evident in the increasing instances of modified ‘ticket splitting’. While voters in Odisha voted more or less similarly overall for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan voters quickly shifted to the BJP after having voted the Congress to power in last year’s Assembly elections.
In Telangana, the TRS won big in the 2018 Assembly election, but had less cause to celebrate this time as voters returned to a more competitively shared outcome. Thus, in States where elections to the State legislature are not happening along with elections to the Lok Sabha, voters are abruptly shifting away from one party and towards another.
The second feature of this political churning has to do with the social bases of parties. Traditional ways of estimating or explaining outcomes on the basis of social demographics has (at least temporarily) lost its salience. It has also rendered political strategies of constructing alternative social coalitions somewhat ineffective, as shown by the limited success of the SP-BSP coalition in Uttar Pradesh.
In a multi-party competition, for the BJP to poll 50% of the votes is remarkable, more so as the party saw many hiccups in the nineties. To properly understand the BJP’s performance would require many more analytical prisms. Our write-ups point to a few trends. One, the geographical expansion of the BJP has been remarkable. Two, many non-BJP voters were persuaded to vote for the BJP because of the leadership factor. Three, support for the party got consolidated through the construction of a nationalist narrative that did not perhaps become very visible despite the Balakot issue.
But above all else, the BJP is now becoming a new umbrella party replicating the Congress of yesteryears — though this umbrella does not have room for non-Hindu sections. As the piece on religious divide shows, the rise of the BJP corresponds with a probably unprecedented religious polarisation. Hindus and Muslims polarising around the BJP and the Congress, respectively, is a dangerous development that is attendant on this outcome. Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP also means that apart from the religion factor, the BJP’s voter base lacks any sharp social character. Yes, young, educated men do vote for the BJP a little more. Yes, the BJP is on the road to becoming a party of upper and backward Hindu communities propped up by critical support from Dalits and Adivasis. But despite these fine points, the big story is in the Hindu consolidation that has been achieved through the outcomes of 2014 and 2019.
*Dr. Rajkumar Singh, Professor and Head, P.G. Dept of Political Science BNMU, West Campus, P.G. Centre, Saharsa, Bihar, India