Coalition government is a phenomenon where a number of political parties join hands or form an alliance to run the government. Coalition politics is possible when the constituent political parties have some sort of commonality in their ideology. The concept of coalition politics in India is suitable because of its geographical diversity in terms of different physical regions, large population, diversity in culture and aspirations etc. In the Indian context, the concept of coalition politics started in late 1970s, but came into existence in late 1980s. Indian political parties have fragmented over years on the issue of ideology. Therefore, theorising the coalition politics essentially underlines the plurality, vastness and complexity of India. The term ‘coalition’ originated from the Latin word ‘coalition’ which means ‘to grow together’. In the political parlance, coalition is an alliance or union or coming together for joint action while forming a government.
In a parliamentary democracy, it is assumed that the political party with majority would form the government and the rest would function as opposition. However, in a parliamentary system which allows for multi-party democracy the problem arises when no political party is able to stake claim because of lack of majority numbers. It is when political parties cobble up a coalition to stake claim for forming a government. When political parties came to this reality they also started forming coalition or alliance before election process. With mutual consent, they would contest only a limited number of seats. Therefore, the concept of coalition evolved with every passing year. India’s tryst with coalition government came in 1937, in the pre-independence era. Jinnah appealed to Congress to form a coalition in UP, but it did not materialise. However, coalition government became a reality in Punjab and NWFP (North-West Frontier Province) when Congress made an alliance with regional parties. At the national level in 1947 the interim government under the stewardship of Nehru was the first coalition among Congress, Muslim League, Hindu Mahasabha and many others.
However, in the post independence era, the face of Indian politics changed in 1969. At this time, certain members of Congress withdrew support and the Congress government became a minority government. But with the support of Communist Party of India (CPI) and Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from outside, the Congress Government survived the scare. However, the 1967 election was a major watershed in the Indian politics. Causes such as intra-party factionalism, conflicts, defections, secession led to the demise of Congress in many states. The Congress rule remained intact at the centre till 1977. However, Janata Party came at the helm in 1977. Technically, it cannot be said to be a coalition government, but the way it made its exit was typical of a coalition party. Various aspiring leaders and factions in the party pulled the amorphous grouping apart. In its true sense, political commentators mark the year 1989 as the advent of coalition politics.
In 1989, a coalition of National Front under the leadership of VP Singh was formed. The government was supported by BJP, CPI, CPI(M) from outside. The coalition survived only for 11 months as the constituent parties parted ways on the issue of ideology. Another short lived coalition came immediately after when Chandra Shekhar formed government with the support of Congress, AIADMK, BSP etc. The coalition dissolved over the issue of government doing surveillance of Rajiv Gandhi. Another coalition government at the centre came up when HD Deve Gowda formed government of United Front. A group of political parties had the support of Congress, SP, DMK, etc. The Congress withdrew support on the issue of lack of communication between the coalition and Congress.
Next coalition came under the Prime Ministership of Inder Kumar Gujaral. The coalition survived only for 11 months after INC withdrew support. The next coalition was led by AB Vajpayee in 1998-99. BJP led coalition was supported by AIADMK, BJP, Akali Dal etc. Since, BJP was unable to fulfill demands of AIADMK the government fell down. The confidence vote was lost by one, 269 for and 270 against. The next coalition was the most successful experiment of Indian politics. The National Democratic Alliance survived for 6 years under the leadership of AB Vajpayee. The constituents were BJP, AIADMK, TDP, TMC etc. Since 1999, all the governments formed were coalition government including the governments formed during 2004, 2009 general election under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and the banner of United Progressive Alliance.
The 2014 election was unique one because after years of coalition politics NDA fought the election under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi, and BJP managed to secure majority as the single largest party. Although, the trend picked up in 1989, it gave fillip to regional political parties. As a result in most of the states we witnessed coalition politics. Moreover, the things have come to such a pass in the assembly elections that political parties are forced to form coalition. Sometimes, the most sworn enemies in political arena have come together to form coalition. In recent times, we saw the Bihar election where Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) formed coalition government. In most of these cases, the unholy alliance fructified out of the greed of power and not as a convergence of ideology.
There are several reasons for coalition politics. One of them is the inability of national parties to represent regional aspirations. Also, they are not able to truly represent the diversity of India. Another reason is lack of leadership. Post independence, the leadership commanded respect and trust. People started identifying themselves with regional leaders. Also, the Mandal politics gave rise to caste based political parties. Moreover, political parties with religious identity also existed in India. These factors created a mass base in different parts of India. This also gave rise to regional political parties. Coalition government has its own inherent merits and demerits.
When coalition governments are formed, several advantages are witnessed which include
- Better representation of diverse ideas.
- Serve the nation or state well.
- In a coalition government of regional party, the regional demands are met adequately.
- The system becomes more democratic and power concentration comes under check.
- Voters have more than one choice.
On the other hand, it also has its negative effects which include
- It leads to horse trading while forming governments.
- Defection takes place after election gets over.
- Parties resort to unethical means, offer critical government ministries in exchange for support. Sometimes, the ministers’ merit is not in a consonance with the demand of ministry.
- It gives rise to money and muscle politics
- As cobbling up a coalition requires these factors, many times it has been seen that parties withdraw support when some ludicrous demands are not met.
Indian politics has therefore made a full-fledged foray into the world of coalitions. Therefore, hung Parliament and hung assembly has become a norm. But coalition governments can truly represent the aspirations of citizenry. It will be a successful experiment when a coalition is formed on ideological congruity and not for vested interests. But coalition government concept has a long way to cover. With the increasing role of regional parties, the experiment will become more challenging.