How often have we heard intellectuals and politicians say coalition governments at the Centre are the order of the day? That MPs must learn the culture of give and take that is needed for any workable coalition. That if states can run them successfully, then so should the Centre. And, finally, the ultimate western-educated liberal question: if the economy of post-war Italy could remain unaffected by the coming and going of innumerable coalition governments, then why should the annual chopping and changing affect India's reforms?
Fact 1: Coalitions haven't worked at the Centre. They've failed seven times. Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda, Gujral and Vajpayee are evidence enough. Seven governments, each with an average life of nine months per mili-juli sarkar can make Italians proud. With a little difference. Italy's per capita income adjusted for purchasing power parity is merely 14 times that of India's, thank you very much. Italy is wealthy enough to afford myriad mili-juli sarkars; India can't.
Fact 2: The notion that coalitions have worked brilliantly in the states is a myth. A much-touted example is the cpm-led Left Front governments that have ruled West Bengal for over two decades. Save the first stint, the cpm always won enough assembly seats to command a majority. The other Left Front camp followers are exactly what they are - fringe followers of a big brother who could have just as well governed on his own. Yes, Kerala has had a couple of instances of more 'equitable' coalitions. But these are too few to claim that coalitions work magnificently in various states.
Why haven't coalitions worked at the Centre? There are many answers, and one of these has to do with the failure of carrot-stick mechanisms. To understand what I mean, it's useful to think of any coalition as a cartel where several producers get together to, say, restrict supply and maintain high prices and profits. The central idea of a cartel is that no signatory (read, coalition partner) should deviate from the common agenda because (a) the gains from coalescing are high, and (b) the cost of deviating is higher still.
Unfortunately, all cartels suffer from the 'free-rider' problem. Each player thinks it's worth his while to cheat just a bit, as others behave like good boys. Of course, if everyone thinks like that, the cartel disintegrates into a free-for-all. An example of this can be found in multistorey apartment complexes that operate a common genset in summer. During a power cut, no flat is supposed to use more than one light and one fan. But many do, assuming that some neighbours are away. When enough residents cheat, the genset trips. So, flat-owners get away by cheating during afternoons - when many apartments are devoid of residents - but come a cropper during a late-night power cut.
Free-rider problems can be minimised if, and only if, three conditions are simultaneously fulfilled. First, free-riders have to be detected. Second, they must be severely punished. Third, and most important, the punishment has to be credible. If a free-rider knows the penalty will affect the punisher as much as the punished, he'll assume there'll only be huffing and puffing, but no real penalty.Since any punishment inflicts a cost upon a free-rider as well as on disciplined members, can there ever be a credible punishment threat - so that nobody deviates and the coalition lives happily ever after? Yes, so long as at least one partner is strong enough to absorb the cost of punishing the deviant.
There lies the rub. Cut to the last example of a coalition at the Centre. Even before the ink was dry on the National Agenda for Governance, the Madam from Madras began to up the ante. Poor Vajpayee kept on placating her - for he could do nothing else given that she had 18 loyal Her Mistress' Voices in a coalition with a wafer-thin majority. Her deviations were detected. The response: one Cabinet minister after another paying homage at Poes Garden, being made to hang around in antechambers to be curtly received and regally dismissed. She couldn't be penalised. As the events of April '99 have shown, the cost of punishing Jaya was greater for the coalition than for her. If bjp had won another 30 seats, it could have really wielded the big stick.
But what about that acronym tina (There Is No Alternative)? If it meant anything, we would have seen either Vajpayee handsomely winning the trust vote, or a Sonia-inspired, Congress-led alternative mustering well over 270 seats. When the electoral policy of a nation is so fractured that a party with four MPs can behave like a king-maker, there's no such thing as tina. What we have is eleventh-hour brinkmanship, with an ever-increasing list of monetary and other demands that bear no relationship to the percentage of seats held.
It's possible the 13th Lok Sabha will be just as badly deadlocked as the previous two. After all, the Congress has long ceased to even think of building a base worth anything in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. And despite its stronger cadre base, the bjp still has too many geographical chinks in its electoral armour. Unless either party gets at least 250 seats on their own, we'll see another unstable coalition. The chances of instability are higher if the bjp-led coalition repeats its past performances. For, as Indira, Rajiv, Kesri and now Sonia have shown, the Congress hates to be out of power, and will indulge in any machination to topple coalitions. It took less than a year for everyone to discover that Pachmarhi is just a hill station.
In the not-too-distant past we, the voters, used to make a distinction between regional and national parties. Candidates from the former were sent to assemblies, and those from the latter to the Lok Sabha. I pray we'll revert to that. Being jerked around seven times is reason enough to chuck the mili-juli concept to where it belongs - the dustbin.