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Coalition Games: Stability And Coherence, The Defining Features Of Coalition Governments

India’s experiments indicate that a successful and stable alliance needs three key elements—an anchor party, an unanimously chosen leader and ideological congruency between partners

Coalition Games: Stability And Coherence, The Defining Features Of Coalition Governments
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The collapse of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra has yet again highlighted the adage that coalition governments are inherently unstable. The event has also dashed the hopes of those who wished—and are still hopeful—that the MVA experiment could be replicated at the national level to stop the BJP juggernaut in 2024.

What has been India’s experience with coalition politics? Are coalition governments always unstable? What is their record on governance parameters? It would be helpful to understand why political parties form coalitions and under what conditions such coalitions are likely to be stable before dwelling on the consequences of coalition politics. Comparative literature on coalition politics makes a distinction between ‘ideological coalitions’ and ‘governance coalitions’. For the right reasons, many often refer to the latter category as ‘coalition of convenience’ or ‘opportunistic coalitions’. While ideological coalitions can and are governance coalitions (for example, the Left Front experiment in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura or Shiv Sena-BJP arrangement in Maharashtra till 2014), it is rare for governance coalitions to become ideological coalitions. It is true that coalitions of convenience tend not to have coherent policy agendas and can be internally divisive, but this doesn’t mean that governance coalitions are always inherently unstable. A case in point: the BJP-JD(U) partnership in Bihar between 1995 and 2013. Since then, these two parties have again entered into a power-sharing arrangement starting July 2017, but the new equation is marked with deep distrust for each other. The coalition now survives as that is the only way the two parties can keep the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led alliance in Bihar at bay.

Political parties enter pre-election coalitional arrangements for vote-pooling and resource-pooling incentives, and in post-election arrangements to share the spoils of power if it brings them to office or to safeguard their base from being poached if they are sitting in opposition benches. The stability of any coalition is thus determined by mutual interdependencies rooted in these incentive structures. The Indian experience indicates that coalitions are more likely to win elections when their size (in number of parties) is large and characterised by a significant size difference between the coalition partners (for example, coalitions led by DMK or AIADMK in Tamil Nadu), or when each partner can mobilise mutually exclusive yet significant social sections (the BJP has a strong presence among the upper castes and JD (U), among the OBCs).

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Bihar CM and JDU president Nitish Kumar with BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi at a 2020 press conference Photo: Getty Images

One must understand, coalitional arrangements also bring negative externalities for partners. In a multi-party federal system like India, while competing for vote maximisation, parties must decide which partners to accept in a coalition. As scholars of coalition politics have noted that “coalition bargaining involves the risk of producing confusion on specific ideological positions and [their] relative distance from the other parties.” For example, it may not be in the best interest of coalition participants to fully cooperate with each other as this may mar their hopes of increasing their influence in future. Similarly, extreme competitiveness is also not in their long-term interest, although it may be the best strategy for coalition members interested in short-term gains. The ideal strategy for those who seek long-term increases in their influence is thus a mixture of competition and cooperation.

Coalition governments in popular perception also get painted as suffering from policy paralysis, and massive corruption, among others. These assertions continue to prevail defying the overwhelming evidence of successful coalition governments in many states and at national level in the past three decades.

India has the experience of successive full terms of coalition governments with the largest number of government parties (9-12 parties)—the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP between 1999 and 2004, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) between 2004 and 2014. Furthermore, the BJP despite having a single-party majority in Lok Sabha in 2014 and 2019 has run the government with its coalition partners. The reasons for BJP’s willingness to accommodate allies are fairly simple—to make up for the shortage of numbers in Rajya Sabha, and to have such coalition partners in many states to successfully win the assembly elections. Despite its status as the dominant party nationally, the BJP is in coalition government in Haryana, and in most Northeast states. Now, the BJP is in power without any allies only in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka. Little surprise then that in the last assembly, no significant third player was present except for JD(S) in Karnataka. Even in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP formed a pre-electoral coalition with several minor parties to contest in 2017 and 2022. In that sense, as E. Sridharan has argued, India is reminiscent of a “surplus coalition” government system featuring a party that already has the strength to form a government but has taken on board other coalition partners.

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Jostling for power Hoardings of BJP and Congress parties side by side with their official slogans Photo: Getty Images

Do coalition governments suffer from indecisiveness and policy paralysis? Irfan Nooruddin in his book titled, Coalition Politics and Economic Development: Credibility and the Strength of Weak Governments, notes that in India, coalitions are associated with periods of greater economic growth, less economic volatility, and more foreign investment. It is true that coalition governments are unable to bring “big changes” if they are dependent on coalition partners for their majority. The inability to bring about radical changes may be frustrating to some, but “big changes” tend to create their set of losers, and in that sense, coalitions act as a safety net. This does not mean that coalition governments cannot get things done. Nooruddin’s book, through a detailed study of economic policies in the 1990s and 2000s, records that coalitions can act when they must and there is more credibility to such policies. But at the same time, research does suggest that ‘coalitions of convenience’ tend to be more corrupt and spendthrift than those that are ideological because everyone has got a hand in the pot.

Finally, what is the possibility of a coalition of opposition parties coming together to challenge the BJP juggernaut in 2024? The BJP’s expansionist imperatives are becoming a threat to state-level parties in many parts of the country. With survival being an immediate priority, it may seem like a necessary choice for many such parties. If a grand alliance of opposition parties takes shape, the BJP would be pitted against a brute arithmetic that could upset its plans in many states. For instance, the BJP’s chances of increasing its base in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala, may become difficult if the principal regional parties and the Congress contest in alliance. The party may find it difficult to retain its position in Maharashtra, Assam, and West Bengal.

If a grand alliance of opposition parties takes shape, the BJP would be pitted against a brute arithmetic that could upset its plans in many states.

While the proposition of a pre-election grand coalition may look tempting, the devil often lies in working out the details. India’s experiments with coalition politics indicates there are three key ingredients of a successful and stable alliance—an anchor party, an unanimously chosen leader and an ideological congruency between alliance partners. The anchor party forms the nucleus of the alliance, exercises relatively greater influence in decision-making and maintains a preeminent position in solving inter-party disputes. The presence of an unanimously chosen leader not only helps in mobilising voters, but also minimises the possibility of leadership struggles. Similarly, a concrete ideological platform (or at least a common minimum programme) helps in coordinating on more contentious issues such as seat-sharing arrangements and allows parties to present an alternate vision to voters. However, if the opposition experiment is only going to be rooted in anti-BJPism, then it is unlikely to serve as the glue for long, much like anti-Congressism, which was short-lived. Three anti-Congress grand alliances—The Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) experiments across North Indian states in 1967, Janata Party experiment in 1977 and the Janata Dal governments in 1989—ceased within two years. And each time, the Congress staged a comeback.  

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Truth is, there is no single party within the opposition that can act as anchor. A coalition of state-level parties with similar electoral prospects will have many veto players. The Congress is the only probable candidate, but it has failed to find a route for independent revival post-2014. Unless the party wins some major state assembly elections in 2023, it is unlikely to impress other parties—especially, the contenders vying for the second spot at national level politics, namely Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Trinamool Congress (TMC)—to join an opposition coalition. The disarray in the opposition camp after the announcement of Draupadi Murmu as the NDA’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election reveals the fragility of plans to bring these parties under one umbrella.  

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Thus, while many permutation combinations can be imagined of the opposition alignment in the run-up to 2024, the route to displace BJP from the top-spot is getting fast closed. This, however, in no way indicates the end of various coalitional arrangements that could sprung up on the mosaic of Indian politics in 2024 and beyond. India’s continental sized polity, civilisational diversity, and entrepreneurial zeal of our politicians will ensure that coalitional arrangements remain at the heart of Indian democracy.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Coalition Games")

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(Views expressed are personal)

Rahul Verma is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi

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