Campaign planners the world over have woven veritable fables and fictions around themes like “chaotic coalitions” and virtues of “strong” leaders. Which is more preferable — unstable minority governments or elected dictatorship? If the choice is between the two evils, one would certainly opt for the first. This inference is founded on this writer’s per diem analysis of the political dynamics that worked under five prime ministers during past 23 years from 1966.
For three decades since the Rajiv Gandhi sweep in 1984, Indian voters refused to give majority to any political party. Narendra Modi was the only messiah who achieved this feat in 2014. Were all the previous minority regimes so weak and indecisive? In 1991, economic reform was launched by the Narasimha Rao government, which at that point of time did not even enjoy a legislative majority. Pokhran 2 was ordered by a minority PM who also stood up to the rigours of the subsequent US embargo. The Kargil war was fought in 1999 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a caretaker PM without the backup of surgical strikes. The contentious nuclear deal with US was valiantly pushed by a “weak” PM. In the process, the lacklusture PM managed to stage Indian political history’s darkest cloak and dagger operation to rope in the most difficult anti-Congress politician. The millennium’s first decade was India’s golden era of investment and growth. It happened under two politically-riven coalitions.
What makes minority governments desirable is that they prevent extremes and create a culture of political consultation and consensus. A crippling demonetisation or surgical bravado might not have happened under the constraints of a hung Parliament. By their very nature, the coalitions tend to be more federal and allow wider scrutiny of the executive’s decisions. Such governments allow more say to the members of civil society and social activists. Initiatives like the RTI, RTA and Land Acquisition Act might not have been possible under an all-powerful supremo.
Coalitions are not inherently unstable and growth is not synonymous with strong leader. The fall of the Deve Gowda government was not due to the dissensions in the UF. It was triggered by outside supporter Sitaram Kesri’s prime ministerial aspirations. The Congress pulled down the I K Gujral government in the hope of a return to office in 1998 on an elusive Rajiv sympathy wave. Yet all the 14 UF parties stood together with their two PMs and went to the next elections as an alliance. Rainbow coalitions under Atal Bihari Vajpayee (six years) and Manmohan Singh (10 years) together held office from 1998 to 2014. This was a credible achievement. The dispute resolution mechanism under the 20-month UF of federal and left parties calls for a deeper appraisal for its institutionalised functioning founded on pre-decision consultations and consensus. Vajpayee worked under constant pressure from Chandrababu Naidu, J Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee. Within his Parivar, the RSS under K S Sudarshan, an ardent adherent of swadeshi economics, tried to put hurdles to Vajpayee’s reform initiatives. It objected to privatisation, labour reform, the patents bill and FDI in retail and insurance. Yet Vajpayee was hailed as a successful liberaliser.
Narendra Modi’s five-year rule has all the attributes of elected authoritarianism. He is sufficiently populist and has borrowed heavily from other populist leaders. In India, populism meant bestowing preferred vote banks with economically unjustifiable freebies. It is not so in the global context. Elected dictators world over display a tendency to short-circuit the functioning democratic institutions to establish a direct communication with voters. They avoid making a statement on floor of the House, but address people directly. Constitutional bodies are treated as hurdles and must be seized or rendered comatose. Media control is their forte. The strong leaders feel more comfortable with dealing with the owners. Modi’s chai pe charcha, mann ki baat and address to students are Indianised versions of what strong leaders do elsewhere. Once the supremo establishes direct hold over the voters, the rest becomes immaterial. The result was that the BJP’s once vibrant party forums like the national executive and council and parliamentary party have all been reduced to sheer sycophancy or a body to communicate the leadership’s decision to the members. That is the irreparable damage the BJP suffered.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 25, 2019, under the title ‘In defence of hung House’. The writer is a senior journalist.