National Election Study 2014 Comment

Obituary for coalitions: New Dawn or Chimera?

Has the 2014 election result ended the coalition era, with the BJP becoming the first party in 30 years to have a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha? Just as the victories of the Congress in 2004 and 2009 proved to be a false dawn for the party, there are enough indicators to show that an obituary for coalition politics will have to wait.

First, it is ironic but not surprising that the BJP majority has come when a coalitional system has actually been institutionalised. In an institutionalised coalition system, alliances and coalitions are normalised as parties are conscious that they may not be able to win elections, come to power or run a government on their own. A mixture of electoral and/or post-electoral calculations was a key element in the overall strategy of almost all political parties in this election. As in the previous two general elections, there were three players, the two coalition fronts, the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance and a host of unaligned parties. While the fronts leveraged pre-electoral calculations, the unaligned reckoned post-electoral factors.

Second, the territoriality of party strength, a key feature of the post-Congress polity has not gone away. Barring the Congress and the BJP no other party has won from more than four states. At the same time, these two polity-wide parties are marginal players in more than 100 seats. This paradox increases the potency of key State-based parties and the importance of alliances.

The BJP’s success has come from its traditional mainstay States in the north and west. Even here, in the two big States of Bihar and Maharashtra its alliances with the LJP and the SHS are crucial. In these elections the party not only had pre-electoral alliances with more than 20 parties across the country but also spoke of post-electoral calculations continually through the campaign. In the east and the south, the BJP is dependent on allies. It is important to note that the BJP is actually unattractive at least as an electoral partner, to key players who matter in some States. In the past, in a competitive two-party situation, the BJP was a useful ally in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and Orissa. However, with the CPI (M), DMK and the Congress ceasing to be competitive forces, the attractiveness of the BJP to the AITC, AIADMK and the BJD has also reduced.

Third, the First Past the Post System (FPTP) of electoral laws that is used in India is advantageous to parties that have concentrated bases of strength. The BJP’s muscle and the success of State-based parties, like the AIADMK, TDP, AITC, SHS and the SDF is primarily a result of how the FPTP translates votes into seats. Thus the Congress with 19.3 percent of the votes got only 44 seats whereas the AIADMK with a substantially lower 3.3 percent of votes managed 37. This is because the Congress is thinly spread across the country and the states in which it still has a robust presence have a low seat share in the Lok Sabha. The spatial distribution of party support plus the incentives in the FPTP system will continue to keep electoral alliances attractive.

Fourth, an election is not a single shot game but part of a larger process. It would be foolhardy for anyone to assume that they do not need allies. Parties form and run governments and governments have to legislate. The incongruence between the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in terms of party-support, another feature of the post-Congress polity, will persist and therefore alliances and coalitions with payoffs at different levels are not going anywhere.

The success of the BJP is the beginning of the end of coalition politics is only a Chimera. The Congress will know that dominance and legitimacy are not only fragile but are also politically constructed. They depend a great deal on political and historical circumstances and events. The fact that the Congress is no longer the dominant party and is in Opposition should not only unburden it but also afford it a greater deal of strategic flexibility. Especially, since the structural features of the political system combined with the pattern of party support make it difficult to write off coalitions.

(K. K. Kailash is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad)

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:16:24 AM |

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