The NDA government at the Centre seems to be struggling to ensure the smooth passage of important legislation in Parliament. Recently, it was forced to defer the decision to debate the amendments to the land acquisition act in the Rajya Sabha. Some of the key policies of the NDA government have come as ordinances and the government seems to be on the backfoot as far as the ratification of many of these ordinances by Parliament is concerned. It has faced numerous embarrassments in the Rajya Sabha, including the passing of an amendment by the opposition to the motion of thanks to the president’s address.
What explains this? Most political commentators would like us to believe that this is simply a case of the NDA not having enough numbers in the Rajya Sabha.
While there is some truth to this claim, in our view, the current gridlock in Parliament is a reflection of two inter-related, yet independent, trajectories dotting India’s electoral politics.
The first trend signals greater consolidation of political power at the state level in the last 10 years or so. Ruling parties in the states now have a better chance of re-election.
If in the 1990s the incumbent parties had an approximately 33 per cent chance of re-election, post-2003 the chances of an incumbent government returning to office increased to 50 per cent. The greater probability of the incumbent party’s re-election has also led to longer terms for their chief ministers and, thereby, increased the political profile of these state leaders.
The elections to state legislative assemblies are also witnessing more decisive verdicts, with the winning party/ alliance taking a relatively higher proportion of seats than in the past. Analysis of election trends of the last 25 years suggests that in many states the proportion of seats won by the winning party/ alliance in the latest assembly election has been much higher compared to the average in elections held in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, Uttar Pradesh saw a series of hung assemblies since 1989, until the BSP won a simple majority in 2007. In 2012, the SP returned with an even bigger mandate. Similarly, in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has been chief minister for the last 15 years. In 2009, his party had 103 seats in the state assembly, which increased to 117 seats in the 2014 election.
As far as incumbency status is concerned, states could be broadly classified in two groups. In some states like Rajasthan, Karnataka, UP, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the incumbent parties are continuously getting replaced, and the winning party is coming to power with a bigger mandate.
In states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, the incumbents are continuously getting re-elected.
The second trend suggests that India is in a phase of divided government. In many states, different parties dominate at the national and state levels. The table provides a snapshot of India’s divided polity. Delhi is an extreme case, which is represented by different parties in the Vidhan Sabha, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. While the BJP and the Congress hold all the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha seats from the state respectively, the AAP has 67 of the 70 seats in the Vidhan Sabha. In neighbouring UP, the SP has a comfortable majority in the assembly; the BJP has approximately 90 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats, while the SP and BSP share approximately equal space in the Rajya Sabha. A similar trend could be observed in states like Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where parties enjoying popular support in the Vidhan Sabha and the Lok Sabha have a low presence in the Rajya Sabha. On the other hand, the NDA has negligible presence at all levels in West Bengal, Odisha, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Ironically, a large proportion of the Congress MPs in the Rajya Sabha represents states where the party has a dismal presence in both the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha.
This phase of divided government is probably temporary, and is primarily due to a time lag between the Rajya Sabha and the assembly elections. But it raises two important questions concerning the idea of representation and democratic accountability.
First, who should be held accountable for policymaking and policy implementation in a quasi-federal system with bicameral legislatures? Second, is a divided government a sign of healthy parliamentary democracy that creates checks and balances or a hurdle that constantly troubles the ruling coalition in formulating and implementing policies?
This divided mandate — popular support to different parties at the state and national levels — is not only impacting the passage of legislation in Parliament but is also likely to play a big role in the implementation of policies. With a majority in the Rajya Sabha unlikely for the government in the near future, Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have to make some compromises and concessions for pushing his agenda of development and governance. His government will have to use some political deftness in dealing with the opposition in the Lok Sabha and seek issue-based support from other parties. In the coming months, we will come to know whether divided governments in India are a sign of maturing democracy or a crisis in governance.
Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US. Gupta is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi