A permanent coalition for a more perfect union

The question before India, given its diversity and size, is whether there should be a reform of our electoral system to ensure greater legitimacy to the government in power.

Published: 05th May 2022 02:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th May 2022 08:46 AM   |  A+A-

Language debate, Language coalition

Image for representational purpose. (Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha)

In what has now become frequent and normal, another minister from a BJP-ruled state, this time from Uttar Pradesh, made a provocative statement. Last week, the fisheries minister of the state not just asserted the primacy of Hindi in India, but said those who did not speak the language would be “assumed” as being either "foreigners" or "linked to foreign powers".

What preceded this was an exchange on the status of Hindi as a national language between two film stars.

It is legitimate for many from outside the Hindi belt, which would mean large linguistic territories in the South, East, West, North and Northeast, to think that constant exchanges and debates like these affect the emotional integrity of our very diverse nation. Our nation is on a delicate contract that the Constitution facilitates, and via Article 1 democratically imagines itself as a 'Union of States'.

Language is just one issue, but there are many other topics and controversies that from time to time threaten to tear us apart. This makes us wonder as to what we should be doing to become a more perfect union in order to protect the integrity of our nation and nurture its diversity. How does one resist the ‘one nation’ idea as literally meaning a hate-filled, bulldozed-homogeneity in all spheres of identity and expression?

There may be many solutions to a conundrum like this, but one of them could well be about becoming an over 50 per cent government. Last week, when the French elections were held and Emmanuel Macron was put back in the chair, he had to face a runoff with Marine Le Pen to secure more than 50 per cent votes. He received a 58.6 per cent majority.

However, in the first round, Macron secured just 27.9 per cent and Le Pen 23.2 per cent. They were the top two and the rest of the votes were scattered among other parties. The runoff was for an absolute majority and it forced a realignment of forces and support.

Similarly, when the German elections were held last year, a combined method of proportional representation and first-past-the-post system ensured that a grand coalition came to power. Earlier too, Angela Merkel had led a coalition government.

Coalitions have been a norm in Germany. And interestingly, both Germany and France have been countries much smaller in size and population compared to India. In 2020, we witnessed the electoral system at play in the US, where the presidential nominees come through an elaborate primaries-and-caucuses system, and there is the complexly constructed electoral college that finally decides the President.

Different democracies have evolved different methods to reflect their varied populations and interests as closely as possible. They have made amendments, alterations and adjustments to their system to capture changing realities.

The question before India, given its diversity and size, is whether we should reform our electoral system to ensure greater legitimacy to the government that comes to power. Should a government that rules from Delhi, or in the states, have an absolute majority of more than 50 per cent votes instead of a relative majority?

In fact, the Justice MN Venkatachaliah Commission, which was set up in 2000 to review the working of the Constitution, had made the following recommendation: "The [Review] Commission while recognising the beneficial potential of the system of runoff contest electing the representative winning on the basis of 50 per cent plus one vote polled, as against the first-past-the-post system, for a more representative democracy, recommends that the Government and the Election Commission of India should examine this issue of prescribing a minimum of 50 per cent plus one vote for election in all its aspects…."

The review commission also said this did not need a major constitutional amendment but “necessary correctives” could be achieved by ordinary legislation, by modifying existing laws or rules or by executive action.

From our election in 1952 to the one in 2019, no government in India has secured a '50 per cent plus one vote' majority. The highest a party secured was 49.1 per cent - the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. The next best was the Congress under Pandit Nehru in 1957 - 47.78 per cent.

The BJP under Narendra Modi received a 37.36% vote share in 2019. This proves that getting an absolute majority is not easy, and 49% was a rare occurrence in 75 years, and therefore to achieve it, a government will need a permanent coalition of parties. Runoffs may be too expensive for us and we anyway do not subscribe to a presidential model. So we could think of a permanent coalition set-up.

Setting up a permanent coalition has numerous advantages: It will force any government to be accommodative and tolerant of ideas that keep India together. It will certainly be more representative. The focus will not be on one or two large states that give a bulk of parliamentary seats.

Exercises like delimitation of constituencies will also acquire a different dynamic. It also ensures that the federal system operates better, and a sense of fairness gets established. Checks and balances will be relatively more robust for any sort of authoritarian impulse.

For the record, coalition experiments in India, despite being noisy and unstable, have delivered on multiple fronts besides the economy.

Being a noisy, less stable coalition but with a '50 per cent plus one vote' majority is more advantageous for the health of our nation than the unchecked extremes of a government that is a minority in real terms due to the electoral system we currently have.

India is anyway a large social, ethnic and cultural coalition and it perhaps should think of becoming a permanent political coalition too. The political system needs to better reflect its social and cultural character. We could throw in one or two extra clauses into this amendment by stating that all regions and corners of India should be mandatorily represented in the ruling coalition.

This will be wielding power by greater consensus. Fortunately, we still have the most sagacious Justice Venkatachaliah around. He reviewed the Constitution but refused to change it. His intellect and integrity will guide us better.

(The writer is a senior journalist and author and can be rached at sugata@sugataraju.in)


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