In political, as in most forms of bargaining, the party with the higher stakes will blink first. With each day that was added to the delay in government formation in Maharashtra, the Congress began to realise it was losing much and gaining little by prolonging the discussions over sharing ministerial berths with its partner, the Nationalist Congress Party. Thus two weeks after the Assembly election results were announced, the senior partner concluded an agreement without being able to wrest any of the major portfolios from the NCP, which was clearly in no hurry to end the stalemate. The accord came after a lot of pressure from the main Opposition, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and some prodding from Governor S.C. Jamir. For his part, NCP legislature party leader Chhagan Bhujbal talked of lending “outside support” to the new government, a ploy often used by junior partners in a coalition. External support without participation in the government is, after all, uncertain support, and the statement was clearly intended as a threat. Pressured and nudged from different sides, the Congress had no real choice but to give in. Any further delay could have created constitutional awkwardness, quite apart from political embarrassment.
This is not the first time these allies have tested each other’s time and patience before reaching an agreement. In 1999, when they first came together, they took two weeks to decide the shape and size of government. In 2004, when the NCP won more seats than the Congress, 12 days were spent in hard bargaining. In 2009, although the Congress, with 82 seats, won 20 seats more than the NCP, it was not able to leverage this in the bargaining for ministries. The NCP negotiators had a clever argument. The Congress contested 174 of the 288 seats but won fewer than half that number. The NCP, bagging 62 from the 114 seats it contested, had a better strike rate (54.4 per cent) than the senior partner (47.1 per cent). The Congress was allowed to field candidates in a larger number of constituencies on the strength of its good showing in the Lok Sabha election. By contrast, the NCP, which did not fare all that well in the 15th general election, recovered some of the lost ground in the Assembly election. Now that the political negotiations are over, the Congress and the NCP must get to work seriously on the tasks of governance. The 2009 mandate is not an unqualified endorsement of what they did over the last ten years and the coalition regime must set its mind on doing much better. As a first priority, it must deal with the agrarian crisis in all its aspects — drought, power cuts, and farm suicides.