For a country that’s defined as a union of states, a federal government must also reflect the reality of a union of states that are socio-culturally, politically and demographically diverse.
Even as Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrasekhar Rao are shuttling around the country in search of their magical formula of a coalition that can keep the BJP out of power, naysayers are busy reviving their stock argument of “stability vs coalition” and “nationalism vs regionalism”.
Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly the BJP and its proxies that are advancing this argument. In fact, they had set it off long before the elections, when the Mahagathbandhan was announced, and continued to slam the parties that had rallied against them. In their book, stability is about a single national party that wears nationalism on its sleeve, and not an “assortment” of parties that represent different parts of India.
But is it a realistic postulate? Which is better for India? A coalition or a single-party nationalist government?
It’s interesting to note that the dominance of a single-party had begun to recede way back in the 1990s and one-party governments in between were accidental exceptions. What’s ironic is that the BJP’s first ever successful foray into power was through a coalition of 16 parties in 1998, when the difference in the number of seats between itself and the Congress was only 30. And that was the first ever coalition government that completed its full term in India (NDA) followed by two terms of the Congress-led UPA. In other words, since the 1990s, coalition, with dominant controlling stakes of regional parties, has been the rule and single-party governments have been an exception.
For a country that’s constitutionally defined as a union of states, a federal government must also reflect the reality of a union of states that are socio-culturally, politically and demographically diverse. A slice of India from any part of the country doesn’t represent this diversity except when all the states are thrown in together. That’s what a coalition of parties do. Whether it’s the BJP-led NDA or the Congress-led UPA, the regional parties bring in that element of Indian diversity. In a world where decentralisation is increasingly seen as an integral element of democracy, a single national party, that doesn’t have equal play in all the states, representing the whole of India is an anomaly.
Regional parties and coalitions help the states claim their rightful position in the Union of India. In the erstwhile era of the top-down national governments, mostly dominated by the Congress since independence, Delhi called the shots. Despite the national, state and concurrent subjects that ensured the division of jurisdiction of government under a federal system, the Centre always usurped the states’ rights and even toppled inconvenient state governments at the drop of a hat.
However, since the 1990s, the tables have been turned. The regional parties have marginalised national parties in many states and the decisions are moving away from Delhi. In fact, this is how it should be. That’s where the world is moving towards: internationally decentralisation of power is increasingly seen as a mark of democratic governance. Many big countries such as Indonesia have embarked on decentralisation drives where the provinces and local governments decide policies and programmes that concern the people.
That’s exactly how it should work in India too. A national government or a party that runs it cannot make any claims on health, sanitation, education, hunger, poverty, housing, electrification or any of the issues concerning social or human development because delivery of services and the welfare of the people are handled by the state governments and local bodies. When the global norm is that development gains are measured at the local levels and not at the national levels, the onus of policies and programmes concerning the welfare of people is on the state governments. Making decisions and policy statements that counter this logic is foolish and is against the very idea of India.
That’s precisely why regional parties began asserting themselves with their provincial socio-political agendas and counter the top-down “national” agenda. In the new world order, it’s the local agendas that make the bulk of national agendas. There could indeed be conflicts among the local agendas, but that’s how the Indian nation state will refine itself.
Compared to the centralised past, India is a lot more federal now, but the Narendra Modi government sought to take it back to the old times. He embarked on a number of vertical programmes on subjects in which the states alone are the stakeholders. There’s nothing more imprudent than applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ development model on the states that are in drastically different phases of development. A policy on education, sanitation or health that makes sense in a backward state such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar may appear oxymoronic in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Similarly usurping the tax autonomy rights of the states, in the name of uniform tax regimes, also have far-reaching negative consequences as states have realised post-GST.
The question is if India needs a national government for deciding the agendas of the states. For instance, Kerala didn’t want the health insurance scheme of the central government, but had to accept it for fear of losing the money that came with it. The West Bengal government outrightly rejected it. Similarly, Tamil Nadu is bitterly opposed to NEET, and even waged political battles to stop it because it affected the state’s brilliant legacy of educational autonomy, but had to fall in because the central government wouldn’t listen. In fact, the NEET issue wouldn’t have arisen had Indira Gandhi not taken education out of the state list and put it in the concurrent list during her centralisation spree of the 1970s. Given a choice, the DMK would want to bring it back to the state list. If the states had a controlling stake in the central government, these decisions wouldn’t have happened.
That’s the relevance of a coalition government.
In other words, a coalition government that is controlled by regional parties is a way of reclaiming the real India. There will be conflicts and uncertainties, but there will also be accountability and autonomy that a federal system envisages.
Now what remains to be seen is if the BJP – in case the NDA doesn’t have sufficient numbers – is going to present itself as a single largest party and repeat a 1996 AB Vajpayee-style fatal leap or succeed like it did in 1998. Or if the country is going to witness yet another coalition – failure similar to those of 1979, 1989 and 1996-98.
No other party than the Congress embodies the reality of regionalisation and coalition better. The party that once claimed (Kolkata plenary, 1997) that it “has the will and capacity to ensure and acquire the support of the people of this country for a stable one-party government” today is more eager than anybody else to form a coalition government.
The author, a former journalist and UNDP Senior Adviser in the Asia Pacific, is presently based out of Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram.
Views expressed are the author’s own.