The number of coalition partners in political formations is inversely proportional to the availability of political space for diversity and dissent within political parties.
India is the second most populous country in the world with roughly one-sixth of its population. Its federal, parliamentary and representative multiparty system makes it the largest democracy. The fact that the majority of its people did not have formal education did not deter the architects of our Constitution from recommending universal adult franchise. The regularity of regional and national elections, their fair conduct and their ability to usher in new political formations suggest phenomenal success with democracy. This is particularly true in the context of the divergent trajectories of politics and governments among our neighbours in the subcontinent. Nevertheless, the recent era of coalition politics and its compulsions demand analysis.
The freedom movement, led by the upper castes and the rich and landed gentry, morphed into the ruling class. Its leaders formed the Indian National Congress. Their promise of a secular and socialistic society received nationwide support. The party won many State and national elections and ruled the country during the first two-three decades. Gradually, the sheen wore off. The party's penchant for dynastic politics, its intolerance of dissent, empty slogans of an inclusive society and the excesses during the Emergency in the mid-1970s led to disillusionment among the people and its resounding defeat at the polls. About the same time, some States saw the emergence of regional parties, pushing local and regional agenda. The last three decades have seen the emergence of many regional, linguistic, religion and caste-based political formations across the country, fighting to represent the diversity of India's people and their distinctive interests.
Representation without empowerment: The initial excitement generated by universal adult franchise gave way to cynicism. The five-yearly exercise of elected representatives seeking the people's consent for re-election became a ritual. The initial hopes and dreams of the majority, the poor, were soon shattered with minimal changes in their lot. The original enthusiasm, when faced with an option of voting for different parties, gradually faded with the realisation that the choices provided no real alternative. Representation of people in the legislatures and the government did little for their empowerment.
Nevertheless, political parties soon realised the importance of identifying dominant socio-demographic pressures within constituencies. Religion, language, caste and community determined the choice of candidates rather than integrity, ability and policies. Matching candidates with dominant local identities was found to be a vote-winning strategy. However, these linguistic, regional, religious and caste considerations seemed to matter little after results were declared. People soon realised that their representatives did not represent their perspectives and priorities in the legislatures and governments. Political parties were quickly able to assuage the feelings of many elected representatives by sharing the spoils of power. Nevertheless, discontent gave way to factionalism and fragmentation of the polity. The realisation that large national parties fail to represent the diversity, divisions and pluralism in the country has accelerated the support for regional formations.
Space and growth: The space and choices for politicians were restricted. Autocratic leaders, family rule, religious and caste considerations produced glass ceilings within parties. The lack of true intra-party democracy, at the grass-root and higher levels, resulted in frustration among budding political leaders. Local and regional aspirations were stifled. Token representation, the norm in most political parties, denied empowerment of individual representatives and their constituencies. Many leaders with political aspirations moved out to form their own political factions. Many succeeded. Their ability to tap into local and regional discontent and the chauvinistic nature of their campaigns paid handsome electoral dividends. These gains multiplied their power and ability to take on and negotiate with national parties.
Telangana is a classic example of economic growth without political space and empowerment for its people. The complex caste equations in Andhra Pradesh marginalised their representatives, restricted their political space and limited their political emancipation, resulting in the birth of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Pattali Makkal Katchi brought together people and priorities based on support from specific formations. Mamata Banerjee, Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti felt suffocated and squeezed out of political space and formed their own outfits, with varying degrees of success. Many breakaway factions of the Congress supported regional aspirations, which did not find articulation within the larger organisation. Many of these leaders and splinter groups now have much greater power outside the larger parties than they did when they were inside the organisations.
Coalition conundrum: The Left Front in West Bengal was the first coalition, which has successfully won and retained power for over three decades. Kerala also saw major fragmentation within the larger political parties and the resultant formation of coalitions. Such coalitions at the State level have been relatively stable both within the government and in the Opposition.
The last two decades have seen the rise of coalitions at the national level. The initial unstable coalitions have given way to secure alliances, which have brought in major reforms and significant shifts in policy. They seemed to have even enhanced democratic legitimacy, representativeness and national unity. Many parties have become skilled in the required negotiation, cooperation and compromise. Marriages of convenience between incompatible partners have given way to durable, flexible, pragmatic and evolving partnerships. Many parties seem to be able to paper over their contradictions. The temporary nature of their initial relationships within coalitions seems to have matured into established associations. Pre-election negotiations and agreements with common minimum programmes strengthen such arrangements and are now recognised by the electorate. The electorate, through tactical voting, often supports these united platforms. While regional issues dominate many campaigns, the electorate also seems to keep an eye on the need for stable formations at the Centre.
The larger national parties, which did not provide political space for local and regional aspirations within their rigid structure, are now forced to make much bigger compromises with dissidents who are their regional partners. Regional formations, with specific local support, have been able to extract greater concessions and a larger slice of the political pie. The national parties now regularly moan about the disproportionate powers of regional outfits. They blame the lack of progress on the coalition dharma with its committees, consensus and compromise. Nevertheless, pragmatic approaches (e.g. of the Congress) seem to be more successful than those driven by ideology (e.g. of Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left). Political parties will necessarily have to formulate inclusive agendas and frameworks to succeed in coalitions (e.g. the BJP in Bihar).
Intra-party democracy and political space: The few large national parties find it difficult to do justice to the diversity and complexity of India. However, while regional parties are here to stay, all parties would benefit from genuine intra-party democracy. Healthy debates within organisations and organisational elections at all levels will allow political space to raise genuine local and particular concerns. The dismantling of glass ceilings based on autocracy, family background, region, caste and religion will go a long way in creating an ideal environment for the empowerment of the diverse and heterogeneous people.
Many of our leaders and politicians are parochial and partisan. Their worlds are dominated by individual ambition, immediate goals, and narrow sectarian objectives, and they bat for limited constituencies. There is a dearth of visionaries. Many parties have non-inclusive agendas. It is politically naive to expect model parties with true internal democracies, but any movement in this direction will benefit the organisations and the nation. Until such time, the electorate will have to be astute in choosing the least damaging option. Often, the choice is between the devil and the deep blue sea. The fragmentation of parties and the number of partners within coalitions will reach an equilibrium and saturation when political space for debate and dissent is available and valued within political organisations. Without intra-party democracy in most national and regional parties, the polity will continue to fragment and parties will splinter; the pressure and complexity of coalitions will increase with further reduction of choice for the electorate. Coalitions have forced India to recognise that all politics is local. However, the question is: will it increase the insight among political leaders and transform political parties?
(Professor K.S. Jacob in on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore. The views expressed are personal.)