Updated: February 2, 2010 11:01 IST

Demystifying coalition politics

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May 16, 1996, the day P.V. Narasimha Rao resigned as Prime Minister, marked the end of the last single-party government in New Delhi. The country has seen eight coalition regimes in the eventful years since then. The experience has elicited varied responses.

Some have hailed the era of multi-party regimes as an end to the monopoly of power the Congress had enjoyed in the first three post-Independence decades. Some others have seen the new dispensation as giving the different regions and the regionalist forces their rightful, federal due. Still others, however, sighed nostalgically for the gone-with-the-wind era of stability and nationalist outlook.

C. P. Bhambhri makes a promising start by taking a stand against the pro-coalition school and its by-now stale arguments. He points out that “the Congress itself was a coalition of classes, communities, and multiple socio-cultural identity groups.” Presumably excluding the Left parties, he argues that “Every political party, all-India and regional, is... a representative of various strata of the ruling and exploiting classes and this is the reason why the Congress or the BJP does not face... difficulty in sitting with different groups and parties in a coalition government.”

It is not as if Bhambhri makes no distinction between the two major parties and the alliances led by them. Asks he: “How does one explain the co-existence of [a] broad consensus on [the] policy framework of [the] ‘coalition of the ruling classes’ from 1990 to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century and... the existence of a fundamental ideological divide between ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’...?” However, if one looks for an answer to this poser in the pages that follow, one looks in vain.


The book, in fact, avoids dealing with the issues it raises at the start. “The main purpose of this study,” he says, “is to demystify the reality of [the] coalition system of governance at the Centre and the role of regional parties...participating in governance at the Centre.”

As it turns out, however, the “study” is for the most part a compilation of the articles the author has written in newspapers and periodicals. Not many of these disjointed pieces — they are on subjects ranging from reservations to security — dwell on the avowed theme of the book. There is also no attempt to relate the subjects discussed to coalition politics. Many of us may agree with many of the things the author says, but all those observations together do not amount to a critical assessment of coalition politics in India.

On U.P. politics

The chapter titled “Regionalists and coalition politics” has a couple of pieces on caste politics in Uttar Pradesh, one on the “fear” of the BJP keeping the Congress and the Communists together, and a few raps on Raj Thackeray’s knuckles for pursuit of parochial politics.

The section, however, has nothing on the role of the regionalists of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar in power-sharing politics at the Centre.

A lengthy chapter is devoted to foreign policy, again with no issue of coalition politics figuring in the discussion. The articles reproduced here are mostly about India-Pakistan relations and the India-U.S. “strategic partnership.” Not many will differ seriously with the author on these important issues. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is any consideration of coalition politics vis-À-vis foreign policy, for instance the role of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with regard to India’s relations with Sri Lanka and of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in promoting ties with the United States.

The “upshot of all this,” to borrow one of Bhambri’s own favourite expressions, is that the book has only tenuous links with its title. We will have to wait for a serious study on coalition politics in India, a political phenomenon of far-reaching consequences.

COALITION POLITICS IN INDIA: C. P. Bhambhri; Shipra Publications, LG 18-19, Pankaj Central Market, Patparganj, Delhi-110092. Rs. 550.

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