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Policy Paralysis: COALITION DHARMA OR ADHARMA, by Dr.S. Saraswathi, 10 Apr, 2012 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 10 April 2012

Policy Paralysis


Dr S. Saraswathi


The Congress is busy conducting a post-mortem on the Uttar Pradesh elections. It needs to put its house in order, like the others, more so in view of a nagging threat of the General Election being held before 2014. Will there be a third or a fourth front eventually is a question doing the rounds. However, it seems certain that whatever front emerges, if at all, coalition politics is going nowhere.   


Since 1988 General Elections to Parliament, the country has not given a clear mandate to any particular party to govern the nation. Coalition governments have become the rule at the Centre and the lone single party rule of the Congress under P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96) was a minority government.  Political pundits predict that the era of coalition governments at the Centre will last for a long time.


In a vast country with immense diversity of problems and streams of thinking, it is but natural that political parties also emerge to reflect this plurality and cannot  merge  with one another completely and lose their identity.  To long for a two-party system as the ideal pattern is out of place in a pluralistic society presenting a mosaic of social-cultural scenario and wide disparities in every aspect of development.  


Regional and State level parties have grown in this atmosphere and have come to power in many States.  The national parties losing more and more ground to regional parties, the Lok Sabha is a multiparty collectivity from which the governments are formed.


However, the Indian experience during the past two decades in running coalition governments has not contributed anything worthwhile to strengthen democracy in a multiparty system, but on the contrary presents lessons in survival tactics.  In the holy name   of “coalition dharma”, new lessons are offered in parliamentary democracy and Cabinet system.   Coalition dharma clothes a makeshift cabinet for a fractured mandate, and covers policy paralysis of a motley group with high sounding words.  The nation faces a difficult task of preventing coalition dharma fast degenerating into collective adharma.


There is no reason or method in the formation of coalitions. The concept of like-minded parties has never worked.  It exists only in a negative sense as anti-Congress and anti-BJP.  Thus, the DMK has been a partner with the NDA as well as the UPA; so also the TMC and the PMK.  The BJP is able to take the DMK in one cabinet and the AIADMK in another. Parties that bitterly attack each other during the elections join together to form governments!  Some parties that are opponents in a State like the Congress and the SP in Uttar Pradesh are able to cooperate at the Centre when occasion requires.


Coalitions of disparate groups are known in France and West Germany.  They have also faced instability, but have worked with a common objective of sticking together for a period.  


Coalition governments in India bind together a disparate group with a strong string made up of power, influence, and positions and all that they can afford.  Therefore, the group does not fall asunder easily but is unable to do anything substantial. The leading party, which is practically the ruling party, has ideological standpoints and even defined policy measures, but often encounters opposition from its own allies and restrains itself to routine matters or refrain from consulting allies.  This is the state now commonly ridiculed as “policy paralysis”.


Novel lessons in parliamentary democracy are offered both by national and regional parties and by constituent units of coalition governments. The Congress that was averse to coalition government till 2004 changed its position on a realization of its own weakness.  In the last about eight years, as the leader of coalition governments at the Centre, it has refined the concept of coalition dharma and has improved the art of survival.


In a sound parliamentary democracy, the ruling party normally tries to build consensus with the opposition parties on major national issues.  Presently, this consensus building exercise is required even among the allies of the ruling party that form a self-seeking disarrayed group. In the absence of policy convictions, consensus is likely to be worked out not solely on policy agreements but on “give and take” whatever that may mean in politics.


Strong regional parties can successfully bargain package of benefits for their States no matter what the policy or programme they have to support as the price.  They understand coalition dharma as rallying behind the ruling party in parliament whatever may be their policy outside.  Thus, they develop a double personality – one before Parliament and another before their electorate in their regions. Coalition dharma can place a junior partner in many awkward situations to which they voluntarily submit in order to remain near the power Centre.


Embarrassment on policy platforms is no less for the leader of the coalition.  United Front government under Deve Gowda was known for retraction of decisions and withdrawal of public statements under the pressure of allies. The coordinator of the NDA was compelled to make almost monthly trips to Chennai to sort out differences with an ally.  The present UPA is constantly under threat of withdrawal of support of one or other allies making it impossible for the government to proceed with vital economic reforms.  The first and the only injunction  of Coalition Dharma that partners on the whole like to follow  seems to be to avert  the downfall of the Government even if governance dies in the process.


That job of pulling down a coalition government is the specialization of parties promising “outside support” -  a political position that has been nurtured under Indian coalition governments.


The first coalition government of the United Front formed under V.P.Singh in 1989 received outside support from both the BJP and the Left parties and lost power with the withdrawal of support by the BJP. The coalition under Chandrasekhar that followed on the promise of support by the Congress was betrayed very soon.  Again in 1996 and 1997, the Congress used this game of “outside support” for the National Front governments of Deve Gowda and I K Gujral only to be withdrawn quickly.  UPA I survived on the timely support of the Samajwadi Party when the Leftists left them on the crucial question of Nuclear Deal.  “Outside support” gives power without responsibility – a very convenient political weapon that demands no commitments or obligations.


Indian version of coalition governments has diluted the role of the Cabinet and of the Prime Minister. The PM has no free hand to choose his Cabinet colleagues, but has to abide by the dictates of the leader of the partners. As a corollary, he cannot also remove a minister of an alliance party. In some instances, the concept of the collective responsibility of the cabinet is absent. The course of the 2G scam has exposed the weaknesses of coalition arrangement that is devoid of sense of commitment and responsibility.


Replying to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in to Parliament recently, the Prime Minister has expressed anguish that “the difficult decisions that we have to take are made more difficult by the fact that we are running a coalition government”. This statement effectively portrays our current political situation.---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)












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