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Coalition Politics and the Need for Electoral Reform


Sharad Bailur

There have been repeated attempts by prominent people over the last two decades to push through different kinds of reform in the electoral process for various reasons. And it now appears that while there have always been good reasons to change the electoral system, the matter is finally coming to a boil and something will need to be done if the country is to be given a sense of direction in the second half century of its life as an independent nation.

The first three decades of independent India were characterised by the dominance of the Congress Party which held undisputed sway at the centre and in the states. With the waning of its popularity, there should have been at least one strong alternative party which should have developed enough to take over the reins. This has not happened. While the Bharatiya Janata Party is yet to show that it can hold power at the Centre unaided, the others have been either breaking up or entirely new parties are being formed both at the centre and in the states.

It is in the result of this development that we see the spectacle of a thirteen party coalition at the Centre supported from the "outside" by the Congress in which the fractured will of the people is reflected in such an uncertain manner. The coalition is unable to take decisions or is compelled to postpone them in the hope that the need for them will go away. This, at a time when major changes in economic policy demand a clear sense of direction and purpose. The aberration of a minority Congress party block, capable of bringing down a minority government, itself riven with factions, means that the democratic will of the people is being subverted by developments over which the people have no control. Something needs to be done to remedy this situation.

There have been umpteen scholarly articles in the press from senior politicians, journalists and even constitutional experts about the inevitability of the arrival of coalition politics in the working of our democracy. It has been said, in all seriousness, that such a vast and diverse nation is bound to have a large number of parties reflecting differing points of view. The ethos of wishing to accommodate all points of view to reach a very Indian consensual political equilibrium demands that we should work with and not against coalition politics at the centre and in the states. That therefore coalition politics is now here to stay. As is clear, the country continues to run. What then is the problem? After all countries like Italy and Japan have been running coalition governments for decades. Why not us? Besides we have the steel frame of the IAS to continue with everyday governance.

On the surface all these arguments appear to have appeal. Underneath however the premises on which they stand are rotten. India is not Italy. The divisive nature of our religions, cultures, languages, caste and creed barriers, the general lack of education among the representatives whom we send to Parliament, the fact that we have encouraged all this over the last fifty years and the sheer size of the country, effectively converts governance into an exercise of elephantine drunkenness even without a coalition government at the Centre. Coalition politics merely ensures that the government is on the verge of passing out at any moment, throughout its short tenure. And the tenure hangs by a thread. Take the Gujral coalition. Sitaram Kesri has merely to think of picking up a handkerchief and the coalition catches double pneumonia. No decision on any matter can be taken. Conflicting politics just does not permit this. If taken, the decision is based on considerations which have nothing to do with the main cause which called for the decision in the first place. A decision for instance on whether water should be allowed to flow from one state into another has nothing to do with the total quantity of water and the needs of the respective states. It acquires caste connotations, or possibly political ones depending upon which bunch of parties is running which state. The months it took to cobble together an agreement on the need to increase the price of petrol, at a time when the oil pool deficit was ballooning, is another instance.

The splintering of parties is seen by many as a sign of the growing political maturity of the country and its dawning ability to run itself even if parties with differing points of view are involved. This high minded piece of rubbish needs to be put at rest. The very fact that splinter groups cannot even think up new names for themselves, let alone work together, is a strong indication that the splintering is not on ideological lines. It is merely a clash of personalities. Hence the new political dictum: The smaller the splinter group the longer its name. There is no real ideological input in the working of any political group. Their main interest is to first be as close to the seat of power as possible and to grab what they can along with all the others like so many vultures at a kill.

It is true that no one group has overwhelming power and that a kind of uneasy truce exists among all the warring factions in the coalition. A coalition government, by definition therefore, cannot do much harm. But the knives remain out, and are perpetually being sharpened. As a result each group is too busy looking over its shoulder at what the others are up to, to do any useful work for the nation. This kind of political ballet may work for a country like Italy because it does not have a problem with physical size, population, cultural or religious diversity, infrastructure, economic development or education. Besides when such coalition politics does not work in Italy its politics rapidly deteriorates into absolutism. It is therefore not just workable in Italy - it is imperative that it does.The alternative is the absolutist rule of Fascists like Benito Mussolini. Irrespective of the country, coalitions in a democratic set up can therefore only be a second best choice if for no other reason than that they cannot ensure concerted action. Coalitions are merely aberrations in the modern democratic process - not a normal part of it.

Our needs are different. We do not need governments incapable of doing harm. We need governments which will lead the country out of the harm done already. The acceptance of, and post facto admiration for, coalition politics comes of a bankruptcy of ideas on how to restore the situation to a non - coalitional polity. It is not because coalition politics is in itself worthy of admiration. Portentous declamations on the value of coalition government coming from well known names acquire a spurious aura of wisdom because of their origin even if whatever is said is just plain silly. The aura of wisdom ensures that the opinions are less likely to contested.

What then is the choice? Or more properly, do we have a choice? At first sight it would appear that we are destined to continue down the same road till the situation makes for a completely powerless central government at which point the states will break out into open civil war to secure their own interests at the cost of the nation. In fact this prospect, dreadful as it is, is more probable than any other, unless saner counsels prevail and immediate action is taken to remedy the situation. If the situation as it presently is, is allowed to fester and get gradually worse there is little hope that the nation will reach the year 2020 as a single entity.

But there may just be remedy. It must be remembered that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot and should not be tampered with. This means that the liberal democratic framework of governance must continue and the fundamental rights must continue to be honoured. This in itself imposes limitations on the kinds of reform that can be considered to prevent the continuance of, or the new emergence of, coalitional politics and governance. The Constitution is not the cause of the emergence of coalitional politics. Coalitional politics has emerged because divisive influences that beset the nation are getting stronger as political parties appeal to concerns which have no connection with the governance of the nation as a whole or even states as a whole, even if they go to the polls on the lines laid down in the Representation of the People Act.

It would seem therefore that the electoral process and the Act could do with a bit of reform. The reform cannot be too radical. For instance any suggestion that adult suffrage should henceforth be abolished and replaced by a suffrage of the educated would go against the basic structure of the Constitution much though Mr. Nani Palkhivala may like the idea. Similarly the process of recognition of political parties who can contest elections cannot be changed too radically. The freedom to form new political parties cannot be withdrawn. The freedom to vote for a number of parties as exercised by voters today also cannot be withdrawn even if it is precisely this that leads to the mess of pottage that we see at the Centre today. So what kind of reform are we talking about?

If only to discourage the emergence of a multiplicity of parties we should consider making the election to the government at the centre a two step process. In the first step we could have elections in which all parties would have the right to contest. It should be the parties that would contest; not candidates. On a national level each party will have secured a certain percentage of the total vote. It is likely that no party gets more than fifty percent of the vote. No matter. The two parties that secure the two highest vote percentages could then be asked to put up candidates for all the Lok Sabha seats. The other parties would stand automatically disqualified. This will ensure that the Lok Sabha has the absolute majority of one party and the concerted opposition of the other. It will also discourage the formation of splinter parties since they have no hope of coming anywhere in the run off. At the same time no one can say that their political rights have been denied because if they do wish to form a party to contest the election they can do so in the first round. They can even contest as independents in the first round.

This will require an amendment of the Representation of the People Act. The two step run off election could then be extended to state elections as well and possibly to even municipal elections. In this manner the cult of the coalition, the splinter party and the purchasable independent member can be given the quietus.

The present Lok Sabha is however, so constituted that the suggested amendment to the Representation of the People Act goes against the interests of the majority of the people who are presently its members irrespective of which party or group they belong. About the only members who may consider themselves reasonably safe are members of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. It will call for an uncommon act of political wisdom for the BJP and the Congress to work together to push through such an amendment to the Act to ensure their own futures. This possibility may seem remote but stranger happenings occur routinely on the floor of the house, because one thing definitely unites both the BJP and the Congress - the love of power. The horrific vision of a nation in another twenty years, at odds with itself, broken apart by the stupid politics of the late twentieth century, should be incentive enough to sharpen the survival instincts of these two parties. If they do not act with maturity now, they may be permanently disqualifying themselves from any role in India's future in the twenty-first century.