Is coalition politics here to stay? The answer seems to be in the affirmative, given the developments of the recent past in the political arena. Ground realities and pragmatic considerations make the fight for the numbers at the hustings ruthless. The stakes are too high for anyone to ignore. Victory becomes an absolute necessity for the participants in an election, both for the capturing of power and, very often, political survival. No matter how big a party or how wide its reach, the compulsions of Realpolitik call for the supplementing of the party's national appeal with a shot of pizzazz peculiar to a certain region or local community, found aplenty in the state-level or smaller parties.
Level Playing Ground
It is a rare occurrence these days when two major parties are pitted against each other in a poll, be it for the Parliament or the state assemblies. Small regional parties which stand absolutely no chance of forming a government at the Centre or in a State on their own strength, are much too happy to join sides with big parties in the fight so as to be able to share a piece of power after a collective victory. It may, therefore, be stated that coalition politics is all about fighting for and the sharing of power. It affords a level playing ground to all the parties, small, big or medium, to come together to form competing blocs, and thereby have an adequate say in the wielding of power, which is no more the monopoly of big parties.
In effect, this sounds too good to be true. However, political parties, big or small, need to have basic ethics which guide them from degenerating into power brokers. When coalition partners have common ethics, they could be counted on by the people, service to whom needs to be the core guiding principle of a government. Much too often, parties that have nothing in common except an unbridled craving for power, forge tie-ups to topple a government already in position or beat a rival alliance that stands in an election for all the right reasons. It is not all that difficult for the people to identify the power mongers or the nation-breakers from the very fact that such an unholy alliance sticks out on account of its lack of homogeneity. It is not only during the negotiations for the formation of the coalition that they quibble over the spoils of the ensuing fight but also throughout the duration of the alliance.
Much to the amusement of the people and scepticism of the political observers, the coalition partners of an unprincipled alliance tend to hark back to the past when they had shared the dubious honour of slinging mud at each other. The approach of the election at hand brings them back to the present, and make them bury the hatchet and gang up against the common enemy. Nothing other than the vanquishing of the common enemy and the capturing of power could be found on their agenda. In the unfortunate instance of their getting the right numbers at the election, they start a fratricidal war among their own alliance partners. The party to emerge as the biggest bloc would then have to tackle some other alliance partner or the other that demands its pound of flesh in the government. This process opens the door for horse trading and related inadmissible practices.
Nevertheless, the most unfortunate fallout of all these shady developments is the failure of the people to recognise the powerbrokers and moneybags at play for who they are and raise their voice in protest. This shortcoming on the part of the public makes it possible for the unprincipled parties and legislators to shed whatever fig leaf of respectability and honour they had been donning and go about unashamedly and flagrantly pursuing their dirty tricks. Repeated occurrences of such sordid developments in some state or the other in a vast country like India where elections to the assemblies are held according to different time schedules and, not infrequently of late, at the Centre too, leave much to be desired for the health of the democratic system.
Coalition Norms and Ethics
It is, therefore, imperative that the dynamics of the coalition politics be reviewed to bolster up the system. The feasibility of the obliging of the alliance partners of a coalition forged before an election to be held honour-bound to a Common Minimum Programme or some such Action Plan is worth a thought. In case of the pulling out of a coalition by an alliance partner after the alliance comes to power, out of peevishness or as a strong arm tactic intended as a threat to topple the government, the Election Commission should consider disqualifying that party from fighting polls for a substantial period of time. It should also not be ridiculously simple for a party to switch sides except for a valid and genuine reason. In short, coalition politics should not be allowed to dwell only on the poll arithmetic of numbers and thereby degenerate and fall into the hands of unprincipled politicians. Nor should peevish coalition partners be allowed to hold a government to ransom by threatening to pull the plug out on it.
The melodrama that accompanied the No Trust Motion introduced by the Telugu Desam Party in the Lok Sabha last year, which miserably failed, as well as the TDP's withdrawal from the ruling NDA coalition, is a case in point. Apart from causing avoidable pangs of anxiety all around and giving a pathetic opportunity to the government's bitter rivals to drag the ruling coalition to a virtual street fight, what TDP's move accomplished was zilch. The Parliament's precious time could have been prevented from going down the drain. This would have been possible if coalition partners, whether they are on the Treasury benches or in the Opposition, had been made honour-bound by certain basic coalition norms and ethics, enforceable by the Election Commission.
Unity and Stability
Needless to say, it is easier to talk of political parties being made honour-bound to a set of coalition norms and ethics than formulating the means and political will to enforce it. However, the business of governance is by no stretch of the imagination a low hanging fruit. Not being in the category of here-today-gone-tomorrow political imperatives, coalition politics has to be hammered out to evolve into a workable formula capable of providing the nation with a stable government. The alternative would be a lethal dose of political anarchy and administrative chaos. For there is no party in the country today with a pan-Indian appeal. The BJP may yet emerge in the course of the foreseeable future, as the single cohesive party that binds the pockets of ideological isolation like in today's Southern part of the country, with the mainstream national politics. Until such a positive development dawns on the political horizon, we have to channelise the strengths of coalition politics for the nation's unity and a stable government.
(Author is a Chartered Accountant, author and blogger. He has served as an Independent Director on the Boards of India’s most influential public sector banks)