Last week, former Chief Justice of India Justice M.N.Venkatachalaiah sparked off an interesting debate when he maintained at an official function in Bangalore that coalition politics was the sign of degeneration of democracy. It is inconceivable that single-party rule at the Centre would return to India in the foreseeable future with both the Congress and the BJP falling well short of the half-way mark in successive elections and there being no sign of any dramatic surge in their numbers.
Are we then to believe that there is no escape from a further degeneration of democracy?
Justice Venkatachalaiah’s sense of disgust is understandable and legitimate but isn’t there a way to stem the rot? While all around us we have the dark side of coalition politics in evidence, isn’t there the example of West Bengal where coalitions of the Left held sway for more than three decades without even a hint of instability? Hasn’t Kerala managed well with coalitions for decades, sometimes a Left coalition and at other times Congress-led coalitions with no horse trading and no ostensible pulls and pressure from the constituents?
What the country needs really is a maturing of democracy so that coalition politics does not remain the monster it now looks. Justice Venkatachalaiah, when he delivered the keynote address at the diamond jubilee celebrations of the Karnataka assembly was apparently referring to state coalitions when he said that typically, smaller parties bargain for representation in government and a chief minister has no control over the behaviour of members of his Cabinet. But what he said of assemblies is equally true of Parliament.
A strong Centre is the very backbone of our federal structure and it is important that the Prime Minister asserts himself as the head of the coalition rather than meekly acquiescing in the politics of blackmail.
It was indeed sad how, recently, a regional satrap and bully, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, forced the then Railway Minister belonging to her own party to quit office because he had hiked passenger fares in the budget to restore a semblance of order in Railway finances. As the Prime Minister watched helplessly, Mamata replaced Dinesh Trivedi with a pliable and sycophantic Mukul Roy who rolled back the fare hike.
This was the most crass example of an entire Central Cabinet succumbing to the dictates of a regional leader even though it had earlier been party to the presentation of the railway budget. That Mamata tied herself in knots on the choice of the new presidential candidate is quite another story.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections offer little hope of a reversal of the weak-kneed role of the leader of the government. With increasing regionalisation of the polity and with wrong precedents having been set by the Manmohan Singh government, the Prime Minister of the post-election government would need to be a leader of exceptional stature and no-nonsense approach to ensure that his Cabinet is duly answerable to him or her. That such a leader seems nowhere on the horizon as of now is quite another matter. Manmohan Singh has the image of being too nice a man and has always been seen to be holding office at the pleasure of the Congress and UPA boss Sonia Gandhi.
So long as there are two centres of power with the Prime Minister seen to be a step below, the primacy of the Prime Minister, which is the bedrock of parliamentary democracy, cannot hold. It would be interesting to see how strong the Congress and the BJP emerge after the next elections and which leaders show up as the regional chieftains who would call the shots in a coalition by dint of the numbers they would command in Parliament.
Fresh from his Samajwadi Party’s steamroller victory in the UP assembly elections, Mulayam Singh Yadav would predictably be a force to reckon with. Coming from a state that has the highest number of seats in the Lok Sabha (80), Mulayam is banking on being at the head of the largest regional group with a number that would offer him great leverage in a coalition. Since Mulayam’s dominant vote bank is Muslims, it needs no messiah to predict that he would rather have the Congress as an ally than the BJP. But Mulayam does not want to play second fiddle to the Congress this time around and would be a hard nut to crack.
Then there is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar whose state sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha. The manner in which Nitish flexed his muscles with the BJP, deciding to go with the Congress presidential nominee Pranab Mukherjee, and equally, his assertive statements that his party would not support a BJP government at the Centre if Gujarat Chef Minister Narendra Modi is projected as prime ministerial candidate, show that he would demand his pound of flesh when push comes to shove.
Mamata Banerjee too is a formidable regional satrap with her state sending 42 MPs. She is not one who can be taken for granted by any dispensation. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is no pushover either. With her state sending 39 members to the Lok Sabha and with her grip over the state stronger than ever before, Jayalalithaa would be no mean bargainer for her party to join a central coalition. Her inclination would be to go with the BJP but there is nothing definitive when it comes to the iron lady of Tamil Nadu. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, though belonging to a national party the BJP draws his strength from the immense clout he commands in Gujarat. That his attitudes are shaped by his own whims and fancies and not the dictates of his party is no secret to anyone.
The fact is that most of these leaders are titans in their own states and are bound to make their voices heard in the corridors of power in New Delhi. While that is not bad per se, it is vital that the Central government must be run by a person who would not allow himself to be pushed around. It indeed all boils down to governance. Running a coalition government is truly an onerous task. The 2014 general elections and their aftermath will show how vibrant is Indian democracy and how capable it is of facing up to coalition challenges.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a veteran journalist and author.