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New strains in coalition politics may be redefining power-sharing for the future

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: April 4, 2013 12:16 am

The month of March was dominated by Mulayam Singh and the DMK. Both brought the UPA government to the brink and then backed off,at least for the time being. While this led to considerable speculation on the life of the government and the possibility of an early election,it also foregrounded the complex issue of coalition-making during and after the next general elections.

Between 1989 and 2013,two broad models of coalition have emerged. Since 1998,a coalitional bipolarity seems to have stabilised. This still left out quite a few parties,which refused to be subsumed by either the NDA or the UPA. But the formation of these two alliances meant that government formation was practically centred on them. The other model revolves around what has been called the “Third Front”. Since 1989,it has been argued that the Congress and BJP both need to be,and can be,kept out of government formation and the “rest” could form a coalition that becomes the federal front. This line has many takers,both in the political arena and in intellectual circles.

Parties other than the Congress and the BJP have their own stakes in such an arrangement. Only by keeping these two parties out could players like the Janata Dal in the past and the Samajwadi Party now think of a decisive role at the Centre. In 1989,non-Congressism helped these Third Front partners come together and provided some political justification for their alliance,which was bereft of ideological commonality. The menace of communalism replaced non-Congressism in the mid-1990s. Thus,non-BJPism became the binding factor for the United Front government of 1996. Mulayam Singh’s renewed attack on the Congress needs to be read in this context. Parties such as the SP,DMK,TMC and so on require an argument — both to convince their cadres and to justify their stand to the larger public. They lack ideological cohesion. They do not have a common position on most crucial issues. Most of them have been party to the economic policies of the last quarter of a century,since they have been part of either the NDA or the UPA governments (or both,as in the case of the TMC and DMK),and cannot escape blame for the current economic crisis. So,they need to keep (re-)discovering the vices of the Congress and BJP in order to dump these parties and form a Third Front yet again. That is the process Mulayam Singh seeks to set in motion. He realises that his party,and others like his,can perhaps survive as ruling parties at the state level by negotiating with the BJP or the Congress. But at the national level,they can play a decisive role only by decimating the two larger parties. The question is: is Mulayam Singh saying anything that N.T. Rama Rao or V.P. Singh did not say in those early years of the Third Front?

So far,at least,the DMK,Mulayam Singh or Mamata Banerjee (whose party seems to be most eager to bring down the UPA government) have not sought to change the terms of the political discourse by bringing in any new arguments. They have been content with name-calling and grumbling about the treatment meted out by the Congress. Moreover,their governance record leaves very little scope to argue that they are any different from the Congress,in terms of ideas or practices.

But if we go beyond their public posturing,three crucial issues seem to emerge that may have some bearing on the politics of coalition-making in the year to come — and the art of governance within a coalition framework. First,let us look at what the DMK was demanding. It was asking for a share in foreign policy-making power. This issue had also been manifest in the case of the TMC and India’s Bangladesh policy. Unfortunately,political parties have failed to address it up front so far. Increasingly,states and state parties are going to assert themselves in areas that have hitherto been out of bounds for them. Both in terms of federal governance and in terms of the relation between so-called national and so-called state parties,this is going to be an important issue. The face-off on the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 must also be seen as part of this process,where different parties,whatever their geographical reach,have different foreign policy preferences.

Second,states and state parties will increasingly demand preferential treatment from the Centre. Bihar and West Bengal are already asking for this and such demands can only proliferate. While this phenomenon will test the resilience of the federal structure,it will also test the tenacity of the rival coalitions. A Nitish Kumar can negotiate a better deal for his state and strengthen his position within the NDA. At the same time,the Congress,by granting his demands,can bring him closer to the UPA. The DMK can threaten the Congress by pulling out of the government but cannot risk the possibility of its rival,the AIADMK,moving closer to the Congress. By giving more financial assistance to drought-hit Maharashtra,does the Congress help its state wing or does it help the NCP to run away with the credit for wresting more from the Centre?

The third issue for coalition politics dominated by the Congress and BJP is power-sharing within the respective alliances. Now,the question of deciding the leadership of the coalition might arise — particularly with the BJP’s Modi-turn. So far,it has been accepted that within the NDA or UPA,the larger partner chooses who leads the government. As the fluidity of coalitions becomes a norm and both face the possibility that a majority might elude them,it is likely that their partners will stake claims — if not for the top job,at least for a say in deciding on the leader of the legislative coalition. It would only be a logical step towards further institutionalisation of coalition politics if the prime minister is chosen not by the Congress or BJP (in the case of the UPA or NDA),but through negotiations among the partners.

Nitish Kumar’s astute moves last month,and Mulayam Singh’s headline-grabbing murmurs,symbolise the new strains that the politics of coalitions may have to face during and after the elections. If that is indeed the case,would the NDA and UPA look like the United Front?

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune,express@expressindia.com

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