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It's too soon to proclaim death of coalition politics: Milan Vaishnav

Interview with Associate, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Aditi Phadnis 

Milan Vaishnav is an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His primary research focus is the political economy of India, and he examines issues such as corruption and governance, state capacity, distributive politics, and electoral behaviour. In this interview with Aditi Phadnis, he analyses the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and what they mean for Indian politics. Edited excerpts:

What are the broad conclusions we should draw from the election just gone by?


For a quarter century, Indians have been living under what has come to be known as the country's "third electoral system," which began in 1989 with the dawn of coalition politics and has persisted over the past two and a half decades.

What is striking about the recent election is just how many of the core attributes of this system have been challenged. Since 1989, Indian politics has been marked by increasing fragmentation, more competitive elections, a growing role for regional parties, halting voter turnout, and, of course, coalitions in Delhi. The 2014 election represents a surprising reversal of these trends. Fragmentation has diminished considerably, while the rise of regional parties has been arrested; elections actually were less competitive than in recent years. Furthermore, turnout hit a record high, while a coalition arrangement in Delhi proved to be not so inevitable after all.

This raises the possibility India is entering a "fourth system" whose full contours are yet to be determined.

A tentative conclusion is that India has turned its back on the coalition system. How will this impact the federal nature of Indian politics?

Although the 2014 election repudiated many of the tenets of the post-1989 system, it's too soon to proclaim the death of coalition politics. The nature of the polity remains federalised on several counts. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is governing with a coalition - not out of necessity, but out of choice. It recognises that in several states such as Bihar, Maharashtra and Seemandhra, regional allies serve as crucial linchpins.

Second, because the BJP lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha, it must embrace the coalition spirit if it hopes to salvage any meaningful legislative agenda. Given its fragmented nature and staggered six-year terms, the Rajya Sabha's composition will change only gradually.

Finally, increasing decentralisation means that the states are where many of the most exciting policy debates will be taking place. Narendra Modi can take certain steps to jump-start India's economy but at the end of the day, it is in state capitals where the rubber meets the road. Building ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" with key chief ministers will be a necessity. In a sense, substantive coalition building may replace formal coalition making.

In this context, is the demand for smaller states more likely or less likely? If we are moving towards single-party dominance, intuitively it would seem that there will be more demand for regional representation that it will be impossible for any PM to satisfy. So like Rajasthan, that was ignored in the Council of Ministers, or Tamil Nadu which finds only nominal representation, will we see a ratcheting up of regional pressure?

There are two separate issues here. The first has to do with reinvigorated demands for statehood on the part of aspirant secessionist movements in places like Vidharba or Gorkhaland. The opportunistic creation of Telangana, without any systematic process akin to a States Reorganisation Commission, will undoubtedly give a shot in the arm to movements making similar demands across the country.

The second question pertains to regional representation. Here, I think, there is an important shift underway. One of the most significant shifts Modi represents is the fact that he is the first chief minister to make the direct transition to prime minister. He has established his bona fides entirely on the basis of his track record running Gujarat for over a decade. For Modi then, it is hard-wired in his DNA to see things through the prism of India's states. In the previous era, states had to ensure that they had adequate Cabinet representation in order to make sure their concerns were heard at the highest levels.

With Modi, especially if he follows through on his pledge to pursue a path of "co-operative federalism", this imperative becomes weaker. Modi is much more likely than his predecessors to take concerns emanating from the states on board. If the BJP government can revive the moribund National Development Council, bring the states in on foreign policy, and prioritise rule-bound Finance Commission grants over discretionary Planning Commission transfers, direct representation will become less vital.

Modi is trying really hard to offer Indians an alternative "national" identity. Consider his speech on the motion of thanks to the President's Address, where he recalls Gandhi repeatedly and speaks of a new "nationalist" movement that Indians must throw themselves into. Will this call deepen/sharpen caste identity or slowly become a force of attrition?

Modi has picked up on an essential truth about contemporary India, which is that the salience of caste is declining in society at the same time it is being exploited in the political realm. In the long run, however, politics will shift away from caste and move towards a new idiom. Modi has tried to stay ahead of the curve by emphasising class, particularly the middle class - which in many ways is a vaguely defined term. But it is a trope that allows him to speak of aspirations, social mobility and economic security; in a sense, he is trying to construct a narrative around an "Indian Dream".

On the ground, of course, caste clearly has not disappeared; it remains the pre-eminent basis of social order. But social justice for social justice's sake is losing its shine as a political strategy; the last 10 years have been about linking social justice to economic empowerment. The centrality of economic issues in the minds of voters during these elections is indisputable. This is part of a larger trend in the post-2000s era.

What do you see as the primary Opposition - both parliamentary and extra parliamentary?

In the Lok Sabha, there is the intriguing possibility of a "federal" Opposition, led by the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal, and the AIADMK, who together have 91 seats. But I wouldn't underestimate the Congress. Although it officially does not qualify to lead the Opposition in the lower house, it remains the only national counterweight to the BJP. In addition to its sizeable tally in the Rajya Sabha, the Congress controls 11 states and is responsible for nearly a quarter of India's MLAs. These realities, combined with the fact that it won nearly one-fifth of the vote, gives it a legitimacy to serve as the Opposition at an all-India level no other party has.

Outside of Parliament, there are several "veto players" the Modi government will have to contend with: the Supreme Court, a rehabilitated CAG, and the 24x7 media (including social media) jump to mind. In some ways, however, perhaps the greatest challenge to Modi comes from within the family. The BJP, at the end of the day, is a big tent party. While, Modi has displaced much of the old guard in Delhi, he still has to contend with several powerful chief ministers, not to mention other arms of the Sangh Parivar who both resent his stature and don't necessarily share his pro-market instincts.

First Published: Sat, June 14 2014. 21:42 IST
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