[dropcap]I[/dropcap]mages of an array of Opposition party leaders, lined up on stage, holding hands after the Congress-Janata Dal-Secular’s (JD-S’s) “victory” in government formation in Karnataka rekindled hopes that, as a united political force, they might yet pose a significant electoral challenge to the seemingly unstoppable BJP in 2019. The idea of a united Opposition gained further currency following the BJP’s defeat in by-elections across several Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies, especially in Uttar Pradesh. There is no denying that India’s Opposition parties, fractured since 2014, need to now find common ground at a time when the Congress does not quite have it in itself to single-handedly take on a brutally efficient and artful BJP party machinery.
This emerging regrouping of disparate political forces across almost all states of India reveals yet another experiment within the framework of the country’s democratic and party systems of coalition-building to battle a common foe. But such political tactics and moves throw up a bigger, fundamental question: What does the emergence of a large number of political parties, especially in the states, say about Indian polity and whether a large coalition of parties can provide stability, both politically and in terms of governance?
Barring a brief spell of the AB Vajpayee-led NDA, which, after fits and starts, was able to provide single-term stability (of five years) and followed by the Congress-led UPA dispensation, a motley collection of parties or even their coalitions have historically been political failures, if not disasters. On a more positive plane, however, between 1989 and 2014, the Indian political firmament saw the rise of many regional parties. This is a reflection of two processes: First, even as there has been an exponential growth in the number of parties, primarily an outcome of federalism and social hetereogeneity, this proliferation is reflective of a deeper, and wider, fragmentation of the polity. Many observers would like to believe that the emergence of multiple parties strengthens democracy by making elections more competitive, but, second, governance was less stable at least till 2014.
Power-sharing, or “consociationalism” as Arendt Lijphardt puts it, is great as long as the constituent parties in a coalition have some programmatic common ground and are able to transform people’s interests and demands effectively into cohesive policy during election campaigns once they are in government. But, in such a country as India, where opportunistic political parties or groups of parties band together to either “grab” power, or follow legitimate democratic processes of coalition-building, consociationalism, more often than not, falters as the constituent parties follow divergent, short-sighted political goals once in power. A prime example within India is Bihar in recent times.
While the social and political processes behind the emerging grand coalition of the many parties in India less than a year before the 2019 General Elections will be interesting, the key to the success or failure of a united Opposition will lie in the level of dexterity with which these parties represent, or act upon, the electorate’s preferences and their own stated positions on vital issues. What the Opposition parties are, in effect, seeking to do is “convert” a fragmented polity into a single bloc to take on the BJP. So far, this has happened with relative ease and flexibility, although much will depend on how they behave in the context of numerous socio-economic, ideological and ethnic cleavages, as the Lok Sabha elections get closer.
In other words, the banding together aims at transforming the existing conditions into a two-party system which, needless to say, offers greater political stability within the framework of a larger electoral system. The real challenge will be in how effectively and smartly the emerging grand coalition, with the respective parties’ pulls and pressures in individual states, are able to create the necessary and sufficient conditions to overcome constituency-level issues, such as ticket distribution, managing potential “rebel” and “dissident” candidates and factions, inducements, problems of coordination/agenda-setting and inter-party bargaining, and projecting a viable prime ministerial candidate.
Besides, some parties, such as the TMC, SP and BSP, will have to overcome their past “reputation” of being defectors/renegades in order to transform a seemingly inchoate front into a working grand coalition. Moreover, because of the sheer number of parties in the coalition call it a problem of plenty much will depend on a common policy programme because, in its absence, ambiguous, vague, contradictory, volatile and overlapping stances could make it difficult for voters and other parties to readily identify with them.
A coalition will succeed when there is more consensus between all the constituents across ideology, which will potentially minimise conflict and enable voters to view them as consistent. The recent experiments in coalition-building between the SP, BSP till recently both were characterised as inimical to each other and the Congress in UP is a positive sign that voters will reward a united Opposition if they are willing to sink their differences. In the past four years, the BJP-led government has shown signs of practising “illiberal democracy”, or even “liberal autocracy”, although it has provided stability. But there is growing unease among Indians of what the future may hold. In these circumstances, would the emerging grand coalition be able to hold out a promise of curtailing the “tyranny of the majority”?
(The author is a senior journalist)