India has been governed since 1996 by coalitions of one sort or another. Since everyone expects that India will be run by coalitions for the foreseeable future, it is useful to take stock and review the lessons on offer. Perhaps the most useful political lesson is the increased competence amongst political parties to play what game theorists call cooperative games. This is an important change because, until recently, confrontation between all was the rule; now there is cooperation within alliances and groups, and confrontation between them. This may not seem the case when the UPA government is forever squabbling with the Left, but that masks the relative lack of serious conflict within the UPA and within the Left.
Second, the idea of a "national" party has been diluted because even a vote share of 25 per cent is not translating into strong pan-India representation for either the BJP or the Congress—which, between them, have barely a dozen chief ministers outside of the north-east. The states that the two big parties rule account for slightly less than half the seats in the Lok Sabha. In that sense, India now has only regional parties: some big, some small, but basically ones that represent sectional or regional interests even if they position themselves differently. This has made cooperation easier on the old Louis XVIth principle: if we don't hang together, we will hang separately.
Cooperation is further underlined by the third lesson, which is electoral: for winning an election, the choice of the right ally matters more than anything else. In 2004, the NDA lost its grip on power because it switched to the AIADMK from the DMK. This has increased the bargaining power of the smaller parties—apart from the sway that the Left has, watch the moves now between Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi party and the Congress.
As for economic policy, it is now clear that big-ticket reform is impossible except when there is a sense of an overwhelming crisis, as in 1991. What is depressing is that even small reforms that are not remotely controversial take inordinately long to push through. Opposition to economic reform now emanates from within the government as well, instead of from the Opposition alone. This is because of the increased power of business lobbies, a phenomenon seen all over the world where coalitions rule, the most notable case being Italy. The danger here is that governments get paralysed except when moneyed lobbies swing into action.
As for institutional development, "weak" coalition governments appear to have had the effect of making the other institutions of governance stronger. The ceding of power by the government (and within the government, by the Prime Minister to his Cabinet colleagues) has been compensated for, in a very large measure, by the Supreme Court, the Election Commission, the economic regulators and so on. This bodes well for Indian democracy, but this too militates against change.
Finally, there is foreign policy. Here we see the abridgement of the Constitutional right of the central government to enter into treaties. Parliament is seeking a voice in the matter, which could be tacitly conceded. It remains to be seen whether this is a good or bad development. What it does is make the practice of foreign policy more complicated than it has been up to now.
6 months ago