Coalition govt: Spokes without a hub?

Updated on: Apr 02, 2014
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Regional outfits and splinter groups arm-twist national parties and erode the authority of the Prime Minister

The predictions about the coming elections are that no party will get absolute majority. At the next level, the question is: Will either of the two major coalitions get a majority? The election pundits are still debating whether the two national parties, the Congress or BJP, will get at least 200 seats. The hope is that whoever nears that number will have a chance of putting together a coalition to reach simple majority.

Gone are the days of brute majority. For national parties, even getting probable candidates to contest in 300 seats is a challenge. National parties have brought this situation upon themselves.

The coalition, ex ante or ex post election, will again be one of parties with varying ideologies and agendas. Generally speaking, it will be in the interest of the nation to evolve a code for coalition politics before elections are announced.

It is important that the national parties come together and decide the framework of government formation and code of governance -- the codes that would govern the terms of engagement of partners.

The parties say the present situation points to the inevitability of coalition politics. The prevailing reality can at best be described as ‘decentred coalitions’. Our polity started as a unipolar system, migrated to multipolar after the Emergency, and we thought we had finally stabilised around a bipolar system, with the NDA and UPA. But the bipolar system is a morphed version, both bipolar and polycentric.

In purely bipolar coalitions power would be centred around the major partner. In a polycentric system power is diffused and resides within each partner of the coalition, often dictated by individual party strength. The first step in coalition governance was actually made during Indira Gandhi’s time. Before that there was no necessity for a coalition. There was this useful alliance model between the Congress and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.

Ideal model

The Congress contested a lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats and the regional party contested a major share of Assembly seats. This was a truly federal arrangement where both national and regional parties could mark out their space. This was the trend in the 1970s. The regional party claimed no role in the Central government and the national party no role in the State government.

Post Emergency, the situation changed. The opposition parties formed a coalition which included some national parties and regional parties. These were supposed to merge. The parties, however, maintained their identities and it was multipolar coalition. These decades saw national parties lose space to state-level parties, and state-level parties lose in turn to the splinters of regional parties.

The gain by the state-level parties gave them a good bargaining position. The national parties could not muster even a simple majority. The splinter groups of state-level parties with even less than five seats also became critical to the sustenance of the national government.

These parties now started seeing a critical role for themselves at the central level with very little capacity or vision for playing a national role. The national parties on the other hand could not insist on participation in government at the state level. They could not voice opposition at the state level and lost the space to other state-level parties. Initially, this was the case in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra; later it became the scenario even in larger states such as Bihar and UP.

The present system at best resembles the franchisee model in the corporate world with earmarked geographical divisions.


In a political context, it is quite ungovernable. First, the decentred nature has led to a distributed power structure. For example, the prime minister’s prerogative in ministry formation has been undermined.

It is the coalition partners who decide the ministers. Ministers are dropped because the coalition partner say so, even though they were performing well.

Second, accountability and collective responsibility suffered. The ministers are now responsible to party leaders than to the head of the government.

The prime minister can enforce performance only upon party members. Accountability was sought to be ensured through coalition party leaders who are outside the Cabinet. This got strengthened by the formation of a coordination committee which remained outside the boundaries of Parliament and government.

Third, the formation is fluid wherein the elements can keep changing. Parties can come and go. The status preceding the signing of the nuclear deal showed the fragility of the system. Small parties with no mandate on such national issues can jeopardise the system.

Locus of control

The national parties have to seriously consider their losing position in the central space. They need to decide how to compete and be assertive in government formation. Deciding on how to regain control would mean deciding how to compete. This would require more codes and norms than constitutional amendments.

Reform will include revisiting conventions of Cabinet formation. Regional parties have to concede the prerogative of the prime minister in Cabinet formation and in picking ministers.

They can decide the allocation of the number of ministers but not the allocation of ministries. The national party should have complete say in Cabinet formation both in terms of ministry allocation and selection.

Similarly, the ministers are there at the pleasure of the prime minister rather than their own respective leaders. The national parties need a larger role for themselves and should similarly give a bigger role to regional parties at the state level, like the old AIADMK model. The national parties act as the centripetal force by providing a platform but control is multilayered.

What we are seeing is not just the fragmentation of vote politics but of power, control, accountability and governance. This happens when the locus of control lies outside the Cabinet, and the prime minister is not the pivotal force.

The writer is Associate Professor and Chair — Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore

Published on April 02, 2014

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