As the recent round of elections to the legislative assemblies of four states in India reconfirm the decline of the dominant-party system, it is time to reflect on its implications and on the possible mechanics of the multi-party arrangement that has replaced it.
Once upon a time, when independent India was young and “security” meant whether there were enough snacks for the crowds who visited the prime minister on his birthday, political scientists talked about a “dominant-party system.” It was their way of trying to sum up how India’s unprecedented experiment in government worked.
What needed explaining by the early 1960s was a system that had carried out three national general elections, bringing more voters to polling booths than anywhere before in history. It was a system that regularly elected the same party to government both nationally and in most of its federal units. Yet it was a system in which rival parties survived and occasionally won state elections. It was not a one-party state as most of the ex-colonial world was becoming. It was not a totalitarian state, as Nazi Germany had been, the Soviet Union was and the People’s Republic of China was trying to be. And it was not the Democrats-and-Republicans, Labour- and-Conservatives, two-party system that English speakers were familiar with.
The Congress Party seemed to embody many of India’s peculiarities, and in those days of bipolar struggles between Free Worlds and Evil Empires, it was difficult to contemplate what would happen to India without “one-party dominance.” How could such a disparate entity — such a functioning anarchy — endure without a dominant party? The dominant party provided the umbrella under which representatives of various regional interests could shelter, fight, fall out, come back, but, on the whole, resolve difference. Under a strong Prime Minister, the dominant party kept the Indian ship of state from breaking up in the high seas of poverty, class conflict, caste divisions, language rivalry, religious animosity and all the rest.
It is approaching 13 years since the “dominant party system” died in 1989 and, even allowing for its delayed burial in the elections of 1996, it is time to think about what sort of “a system” has replaced it. What should we call it? A “no party dominant” system? An “alliance system”? Or is it” a system” at all? Is it simply, as some columnists suggest, Badmash (scoundrel) Raj?
Three features of politics since 1989 stand out: minority or coalition governments at the centre, state governments unaffiliated to and at odds with the core central- government party and the rise of independent state chief ministers, unbeholden to central authority.
First, minority or coalition governments at the centre. Since 1996, no party has come within an elephant’s trumpet of securing an absolute majority in the national parliament. No party is likely to in the foreseeable future. Even the Narasimha Rao government of 1991-6 failed to command a majority in its own right, and its great lingering scandal, the alleged bribery of MI’s from Jharkhand in 1993, stemmed from the need to line up the votes in a delicately balanced Lok Sabha. Since 1989, MPs in the Lok Sabha have regularly made and unmade prime ministers, most dramatically in the double-cross, of Devi Lal (a prime ministerial aspirant) in 1989 and the fall of the VP Singh government in 1990.
This instability is no doubt a cause of apprehension and dismay for organisations seeking firm, fast-moving and predictable policy-making. Such instability also troubled the analysts who explored the “dominantparty system” in the 1960s. Without an established party at the centre, with strong links in the regions, how could the Indian state survive in a democratic form? Would the end be balkanisation or Bolshevism? But it has not gone that way. Bolshevism is no longer a likely option. And the Balkans balkanised before anyone else and the old Soviet Union followed them. The Indian state, on the other hand, looks a better bet to survive in its present form for another generation than most members of the United Nations.
Part of the explanation for the way coalition politics have seeped through India in the 1990s lies in the growing experience of politicians with the requirements of survival. That experience began most noticeably in the chaotic collapses of governments around the Indian states after the elections of 1967. Coalitions rose and fell constantly between 1967 and 1970, and this process provided action-research for shrewd politicians. From 1970, ways of — and reasons for — overcoming the “Aya Ram Gaya Ram” temptation (the politics of defection) became apparent. The most striking model came from Kerala, as “models” often do.
Kerala, and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin of which it was partly made up, experienced about a dozen different elected governments between 1947 and 1970. None went its full term, and minorities, coalitions and hung assemblies were the rule.
Out of this experience in 1970 came the aviyal mantrisabha – the mixed-vegetables ministry – headed by C Achutha Menon (1913-91) of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which held only a fraction of the legislative seats. Yet this ministry, improvising and straining, survived not only its full term but, because of the “emergency,” till 1977 when its constituents won re-election. Since then, Kerala’s record of governments that go the full term is probably better than that of most Indian states; Kerala’s governments are always coalitions.
A number of features contributed to the transformation in Kerala. Twenty years of disastrous making and unmaking of governments led many politicians to recognise the personal dangers of falling governments and exasperated voters. Politicians stood to lose their perk — the phones, houses, cars and jobs — every time the great electoral wheel-of-fortune was spun. By 1970 a lot more Kerala politicians, given the chance to bring down a ministry, were calculating the benefits of becoming a minister in a new government against the risks of being thrown out in a new election. They had good reason to be apprehensive. Frustrated voters were realising that one of their few powers was the power to vote against candidates they did not like, often those who had recently had their noses in the nectar-trough of office.
Politicians and parties in Kerala acquired a generation of experience. They became practised in the mechanisms, and better able to identify the personalities, that might make coalitions work. The proud and inflexible Pattom A Thanu Pillai (1885-1970), who had been a notable feature of Kerala politics since 1938, gave way to the low-key, scholarly lawyer, Achutha Menon, everyone’s uncle. The latter, let it be known, had a bad heart and that the coalition needed him more than he needed the chief minister’s chair. It was a bluff no one was ready to call. Kerala’s two-alliance system was born, and the state has had fiercely competitive, but relatively predictable and stable governments, since.
Parallels with India in the 1990s are easy to see. The alliances and coalitions that began with the Janata government in 1977 and accelerated after 1989 began to instill discretion in ambitious legislators. They acquired skills in consultation and committees that had been forced on Kerala from the 1960s. And in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, now much mellowed from the fiery chauvinist of 30 years before, they found a plausible uncle. Vajpayee, too, was said to know how to play the “do you really want me to resign?” card.
Given such experience, coalitions at the centre proved not only necessary but possible to form and sustain. The coalition has thus become an essential feature of the “no party dominant” system.
The second feature of Indian politics since 1989 is the fact that governments in the states often are led by parties different from the major party in the central government. After the state elections in February 2002, for example, BJP chief minsters survive in only a handful of the 28 states. In many states, moreover, a two-alliance system has taken shape, again in ways similar to Kerala 30 years ago. Around core parties, smaller groups and leaders cluster. In the “Aya Ram Gaya Ram” days 30 years ago, the rules were still being invented, politicians were discovering what was workable and desirable, and for many MLAs, it was a case of making hay while the fields were still theirs.
MLAs are still practised hay-makers, but many states have developed their own sets of implicit rules within which canny MLAs see the wisdom of working. The ability to run coalitions that hold together means that central governments have difficulty finding pretexts to invoke the second most famous article of the constitution — 356 or President’s Rule, the replacement of a state government by central authority. (Article 370 on Kashmir must hold the prize for the most famous article). Delicately poised coalitions at the centre are even less likely to be capable of casual meddling in states. And, indeed, tails can wag dogs: state parties can make difficult for central coalitions. Until the end of 1997, President’s Rule had been invoked about 100 times, and just under half of the occasions occurred when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister —16 out of 50 years. Since1989, the opportunities and inclinations have been notably fewer. Strong, state-based parties and leaders now are a common feature of India’s political hayfields, and to overthrow them from New Delhi is not something to be done lightly.
Relatedly, a third feature of the “no party dominant” system is the re-emergence of “big” Chief Ministers. “Reemergence” is the right word, because in the 1960s, it was often lamented that the growing power of overmighty state leaders threatened the future of India — people like Pratap Singh Khairon of Punjab, K Kamaraj of Tamil Nadu, Mohanlal Sukhadia of Rajasthan, PC Ghosh of West Bengal, S Nijalingappa of Karnataka, etc. In some ways, Indira Gandhi was a product of this logic: fearing such potential rivals, she set out to behead them. For a generation after her 1971 election victory, independent chief ministers were unwelcome and rare.
The chief minister-in-a-parachute is still a device that Congress and BJP at the centre like to deploy when they can. But such parachutists, even if they were to displace local heavyweights in states like Madhya Pradesh, Kerala or elsewhere, would have every chance of leading the party to disaster in the next election. State voters are like state leaders with genuine muscle; fancy boys and girls dropped down from New Delhi don’t play well at the polls.
Free-wheeling chief ministers, with their own local support base, are the essence of the “no dominant party” system. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu from 1967 foreshadowed a condition that became common and embedded in the 1990s. Chief ministers like K Karunanidhi, J Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu), NT Rama Rao, Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh), Jyoti Basu (West Bengal), Laloo Prasad Yadav (Bihar), Digvijay Singh (Madhya Pradesh), or Prakash Singh Badal (Punjab) may not embody the selfless qualities required for sainthood, but their local power bases and ability to act independently of New Delhi are unquestionable.
Indeed, they sometimes have the capacity to act on New Delhi — the very quality that was thought to be growing perniciously among chief ministers in the 1960s. Since 1989 the capacity has grown for some state leaders (eg, Jayalalithaa or Chandrababu Naidu) to threaten the central government by instructing their parties’ Members of Parliament how to vote in the Lok Sabha. This is a striking contrast to the imposed chief ministers who symbolised Indira Gandhi’s insecurity.
The paradox is neat. Indira Gandhi in 1971 looked enviably secure, yet she felt the need to meddle constantly in the states. Since 1989, however, every Indian prime minister has been decidedly insecure and has largely left the states alone. And on the whole the Indian polity is more, not less, stable for the practice.
On the positive side, the emancipation of tates means that their governments respond to local issues and concerns. The creation of Chhattisgarh, ‘Jharkhand and Uttaranchal in 2000 characterises this assertion of local social forces and the perceived need to placate them. Similarly, governments in Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, to consider just three, act independently of New Delhi and often make New Delhi listen to them.
Indeed, some would argue that Kerala’s asset from the 1950s was its two-alliance system. It embedded competitive politics and required parties to respond constantly to the demands of articulate, organised voters. Direction from the centre was fruitless in the face of such local electoral vitality.
But the states” sensitivity to their own peoples also has negative consequences. Economists regularly refer to the fiscal irresponsibility and bankruptcy of the states. In striving to please the voters, state governments institute populist schemes that offer no prospect of a return on investment and drive states into paralysing debt. This does nothing to solve the long-term problem of providing well-being for the vast, poorly-off majority of citizens. Democracy, responsive governments and sensitive symbolism are admirable; but as they said in the 1960s, “Freedom begins with breakfast.”
In the 1960s, it was feared that overmighty chief ministers and powerful state governments would provide the breeding ground for secession. But the experience of a “no party dominant” system suggests otherwise. On the whole, large states, with strong linguistic and cultural identities, are firmly hinged to India. The link is made by a “national bourgeoisie” (for want of a better term) of business and military people, public servants and politicians who have both an economic and emotional investment in something called “India.” At the same time, they enjoy being movers and shakers in their particular state. In 1999, such people produced a national response to the Kargil war that gave 21st-century meaning to the 19th-century word, “chauvinism.”
A “no party dominant” system is the product of a number of ingredients. First, people of significantly different cultures (dialect, language, caste, religion, appearance, etc), whose forebears had little chance to be part of political decision-making now demand and get a voice. They do so because of expanded literacy and communications — schools, roads, auto vehicles, newspapers, telephones and television. Second, the crucial issues of politics, as with the reading of daily newspapers, are close to home. Thus we see the flourishing of regional political parties espousing close-to-home causes. Third, the diversity of India means that no workable social aggregation is numerically dominant. Fourth, the development of a genuinely national bourgeoisie, which at the same time has its roots deeply and proudly in its region, underwrites the idea of India, yet provides lifeblood to regional political parties. (Consider the role of the Telugu newspaper Eenadu over the past 20 years in the fortunes of the Telugu Desam Party).
From this mixture, the “no party dominant” system emerges. Ideology sometimes provides part of the substance of each core party (eg, in Kerala or West Bengal), but in states like Tamil Nadu, long-standing rivalries between leaders seem more potent as the focus. The two aspirants to be “national parties,” the Congress and the BJP, now must behave like fast-food franchisers. They sell their brand to local agents, who choose to accept, reject, bargain or change sides on the basis of local conditions — whether political fried chicken or deep-dish pizza looks a better bet in their territory. The essential element of the “no party dominant” system is of course India’s federation itself and the attractive arenas it provides for distributing resources and occupying ambitious people. Up till now, federalism has usually enabled the social diversity lying within Indian borders to find acceptable political expression. As sections of society become aware of their disadvantages and possibilities, they have found it possible to create parties for their concerns — or to make existing parties take them up. (In the days of “one-party dominance, “such social manifestations were fewer and were often willingly coopted by the Congress Party).
In a number of states, experience has led to the evolution of two-alliance systems. But no single party dominates, and to survive, rival alliances must woo allies with concrete rewards and the blandishments of electorally effective leaders — “uncles” not “parachutists.”
A “no party dominant” system has capacities for absorbing social movements and presiding over popularly driven, social change. Politically, this is not a bad recipe for minimising the harm human beings can do to each other. But economically, when a third of a country’s population barely lives, and more than a half do not live well, is it enough? Does a “no party dominant” system carry with it, in its inescapable populism, the seeds of its own destruction through economic collapse?