Is coalition government worse than single-party rule?

On the successes and failures of the various kinds of coalition governments at the Centre

May 17, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:59 am IST

The DMK leader M. Karunanidhi seen with Vijay Bhasker Reddy and  Manmohan Singh after meeting Congress President Sonia Gandhi, assuring her his Party's support to form the Congress-led Government at the Centre in New Delhi on May 16, 2004.
Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The DMK leader M. Karunanidhi seen with Vijay Bhasker Reddy and Manmohan Singh after meeting Congress President Sonia Gandhi, assuring her his Party's support to form the Congress-led Government at the Centre in New Delhi on May 16, 2004. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

As India approaches the last phase of the general election and talks on potential post-poll alliances pick up, Suhas Palshikar and Irfan Nooruddin discuss the successes of coalition governments, their contribution to economic growth, and why post-poll coalitions are popular in India. Edited excerpts from a discussion moderated by Srinivasan Ramani :


The BJP, which leads the coalition government at the Centre, terms the initiatives of the Opposition to form a coalition as “mahamilavat” (hodgepodge) or “khichdi”. Has that been the case with coalition governments in India?

Suhas Palshikar : To begin with, as you pointed out, this government is also a coalition government. As Professor E. Sridharan has argued, this is a “surplus coalition” government featuring a party that already has the strength to form a government but has taken on board other coalition partners. This labelling of the Opposition as “khichdi” is not new.

The real question is, what is the experience of coalitions? At the Centre, you have had a number of coalitions since the 1990s. We have had three Congress-led governments which were able to complete their full terms. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was able to complete his full term as the head of a BJP-led coalition. The criticism that coalition governments are inherently or necessarily unstable is not borne out by facts.

In the “surplus coalition” government, the BJP has had minimal ideological differences/ principle differences with its coalition partners unlike, say, in the UPA which was supported by the Left Front from outside in 2004. Does this kind of distinction matter in the success of a coalition?

Irfan Nooruddin : In comparative politics literature, we tend to distinguish between ‘ideological coalitions’ and ‘governance coalitions’. Characterising the current NDA as an ideological coalition is not quite right. It is not quite clear what those ideological principles are that hold this coalition together. But what is true is that the BJP’s strength and the nature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership have left very little room for the coalition partners to place their differences. If they disagree, they are no longer needed to be part of the coalition. That is the power of a surplus coalition. It is not necessarily ideological coherence, but the power of the surplus coalition that defines this regime.


Regarding Suhas’s point, while it is true that the criticisms about coalitions not lasting their terms is not borne out by evidence, coalitions of convenience tend not to have coherent policy agendas and tend to be divided from within. Whether they can frame policies and whether they can manage to put up a working Cabinet are two separate but important issues that matter to a working coalition. Coalition governments can get a lot of things done, and when they do that, they stick together too. But at the same time, coalitions of convenience tend to more likely be corrupt and spend more money than those that are ideological because everyone has got a hand in the pot.

While there is indeed a distinction between coalitions of convenience and those based on ideological cohesion, it is also true that coalitions bring in a certain degree of diversity and plurality of views. In an ideal world where political parties represent certain interests, a coalition of different parties could be more democratic, right?

SP : Coalition governments are not necessarily truly democratic, but they can at least be plural in the views that they represent. That possibility also arises when the parties are not adequately representative of the larger public, but only of smaller sections, regions, communities. In that situation, you need a coalition that allows for better representation. And historically, in India, coalitions only emerged when the Congress’s ability to be representative of the larger spectrum faded.

But also, one must remember that the BJP’s coalition (right from Vajpayee’s time) was not necessarily one of ideology. Pramod Mahajan and Vajpayee, during NDA-1, carefully set aside controversial issues. They made public statements that issues such as Ram Mandir, Article 370, and Uniform Civil Code were indeed the BJP’s core ones, but since its potential partners did not agree with these, it would keep them aside while forming the coalition. In India, therefore, there has been a tradition of limited ideological coalitions.

Demonetisation was one of the most controversial policies implemented by this government. One could argue that if this was a truly plural coalition, there would have been more rumination by the BJP before implementing this decision. What has your study found? Have coalitions come in the way of India’s economic growth or have they enabled it, especially since liberalisation?

IN: The evidence in my book, Coalition Politics and Economic Development , is that coalitions are associated with periods of greater economic growth, less economic volatility and more foreign investment. There is more credibility to the government’s policies, because it has a harder time making radical changes. Something like demonetisation would have been hard to conceive in a coalition government of somewhat equal partners or if the largest member of the coalition was truly dependent on the coalition partners in order to fuel its majority.

That said, Suhasji’s point about India’s coalitions being more of convenience is quite right. Given the nature of India’s States, coalitions have been about regional pluralism. It is not only that the BJP won the majority of the seats in 2014 with only 31% of the vote share. Those votes were deeply concentrated in some areas of the country. To form a nationally representative government, it was required to bring in regional parties in the east and in the south into this coalition. This is not necessarily democratic but more representative of the country. It is true that the previous governments were able to carry out economic reforms, but some would say this was because their backs were to the wall — one would recall that the 1991 reforms were enacted under duress as there was a balance of payments crisis. So, it could be true that coalition governments are unable to make reforms of choice. In sum, we could say that coalitions are able to act when they have to, but they make fewer big changes. For some that is frustrating and for some that is safety.

Do coalition governments featuring regional parties that represent sectional interests manage to do well on the redistribution front?

IN: Evidence from Western Europe shows that coalition governments tend [towards] greater fiscal spending. Some would say that is due to redistribution, while some would argue that this is due to lack of fiscal discipline — smaller parties could extract more than their fair share as they could threaten to walk out.

In the Indian context, Pradeep Chhibber and I published a paper 15 years ago that suggested that two-party competition or tighter competition would result in greater public goods spending, while in a fragmented party system, there would be greater distribution of ‘club goods’ which would involve spending for specific communities represented by smaller parties in some States. This is at the State level. So, yes, you would get redistribution, but not necessarily in the way you would ideally want it to be.

Why is there a reluctance to form pre-election coalitions despite a larger commonality of interest and a greater inclination to form post-poll coalitions in India?

SP: The simple reason is that in India, there is one national-level player and several regional parties. In both cases, the national party seeks to expand its geographical reach across and within States. In such situations, these parties seek to keep their cards closer to their chest and play them after the elections based on the outcome. If there was a situation where there were only State parties and no all-India party, this would have enabled pre-election coalitions. Besides this, there is an absence of ideological coherence (at least in the last 25 years or so) that would bring parties together for a pre-election coalition.

IN : What it means to be a party in India is to allocate tickets. For pre-election coalitions, parties will have to tell constituents — people who have worked for a party for years and expect a reward in the form of a ticket — that they won’t get tickets to contest. This causes unhappiness and bickering. So it is much better to say, take your ticket and contest and we will form a coalition later based on how many seats we have.

Would a prospective coalition that could come to power do so on the basis of a common minimum programme?

SP : Neither a BJP-led coalition nor a Congress-led coalition would do that. If it is a BJP-led coalition, the BJP will be in a pre-eminent position and wouldn’t require any ideological coherence and would want to keep its ideology. It would still want to keep its partners intact for the time being — the Shiv Sena, the JD(U), and so on.

In a non-BJP coalition, there would not be any ideological coherence because they wouldn’t have probably given enough thought to what kind of governance programme they would have if they come to power. Their single unifying agenda would be to remove the present incumbent from power.

IN : The Congress has spent five years of near irrelevance in the legislature. This is a rebuilding exercise for it. The notion that it has a common programme to articulate, and that it will use that to bring a lot of other parties on board, is hard to imagine. There is just a single-point agenda: to keep the BJP out.

In either case, there will be a coalition. It will be difficult for the BJP to replicate its 2014 success in this election. Now the question is whether it will be a coalition in which the BJP will bring 250 seats to the table or whether it will bring 210-220. If it’s closer to 250, it will be able to push its own agenda. But if it’s 210-220, then it would have to make some compromises with its coalition partners. And it will be interesting to see how Mr. Modi and BJP President Amit Shah manage that — ceding authority to coalition partners unlike the centralised scenario we see today.

SP : I think even if the BJP wins 210, it will buy the support of its partners by giving them various ministries, promising special packages for their States, etc. Concentration of authority and power within the Prime Minister’s Office will still continue, and Mr. Modi will act exactly the same way as he has acted in the last five years.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.