Revisiting idea of permanent coalition

Justice Venkatachaliah had mooted the idea of governments by those representing a majority of votes. It’s never happened in our pluralistic system. Coalition has often been the answer
Revisiting idea of permanent coalition
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

The elections have had a sobering effect on Indian democracy. What appeared to be on steroids for a decade has been suddenly brought back to an old, healthy normal. In the columns of this newspaper, in May 2022, this columnist argued that given India’s diversity of thought, culture, languages, ethnicities and religions, the best government to have would be a coalition government. We have one now.

The argument that was made on coalitions then stemmed from a forgotten suggestion that had been made by the Justice M N Venkatachaliah commission report that looked at the functioning of the Constitution after a half-century of its implementation in 1950. The commission, set up ambitiously by the then A B Vajpayee government, made one of the most credible and respected figures of Indian judiciary as its chairperson. The report suggested it would be best if all governments in India, at all tiers, mandatorily accomplish a 50-plus vote share. With this recommendation, Justice Venkatachaliah perhaps meant that only a government with a 50-plus percent vote share would have the necessary legitimacy to govern.

Even when this commission was set up, there were people who looked at it with a great deal of suspicion. They planted doubt and spread a narrative that the true or hidden intent of this commission was to change the Constitution. Since a necessary part of any robust democracy is to doubt or suspect anything that anyone in power does, the criticisms were not out of place. But it eventually turned out that the legendary Justice Venkatachaliah became known for not tampering with the Constitution but strengthening it.

He made constructive suggestions to save democracy and the idea of the 50-plus percent vote was one of them. Justice Venkatachaliah also clarified that to make this change did not require a constitutional amendment but a minor executive and legislative process. It is this seed idea that the columnist had extrapolated to argue that Indian pluralism and diversity would be safe only if we put in place an arrangement of government that is a permanent coalition.

The idea of a permanent coalition is interesting as no government since we became a republic has ever amassed a 50 percent vote share. Even at their peak popularity, Nehru or Indira Gandhi could not manage a 50 percent vote share for the Congress. Even the election held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, which largely produced a sympathy wave for Rajiv Gandhi, could not achieve this. Since we are a first past the post system, whoever touched the halfway seat mark formed the government. The halfway mark in terms of seats did not necessarily mean a 50-plus percent vote share.

The two previous governments led by the BJP, which in the liberal rhetoric were charged with being ‘authoritarian’ or ‘dictatorial’ had a vote share of under 35 percent the first time it came to power in 2014, and well under 40 percent in 2019. Interestingly, now in 2024, the BJP can form a government only if it brings others together as its parliamentary seats are 32 short of the halfway mark. But in the process of building a coalition government ,it will add to its 36.6 percent the vote share of its allies, which will create a more representative 50 percent vote share or around it. It would be a genuine, participative coalition government with necessary checks and balances in place, rather than a ruling alliance with one dominant player extending patronage and protection to political friends.

Now this is a moment the allies of the ruling party and the opposition block led by the Congress should try to institutionalise. They should push hard to make necessary changes to the laws to ensure India never again is a single-party rule. Countries in Europe that have seen frightening phases of history have more or less institutionalised coalition arrangements so that no one person can take them to the brink of war and disaster again. Even as we speak, people in South Africa have ended the one-party rule of the African National Congress and forced the party of their freedom movement to build a coalition.

This effort to make India a permanent coalition has to perhaps be proactively thrust forward by the Congress and its political and non-political allies. The onus is on them because it is they who built the narrative that the Indian democracy was in danger. Now that they have done a formidable job of containing the BJP, they have to think of permanent solutions.

Until the day before counting of votes on June 4, they had argued and created doubt in the minds of the people that the voting machines, the election commission, the judiciary, the media, and many other things were compromised. The job of the opposition cannot just be to plant fear but to also rectify it when the opportunity arises and the political atmosphere is conducive.

Rahul Gandhi relentlessly asked people not to be afraid (“Daro mat”). He constantly put himself on a very high ethical platform. If he is serious about his accusations, he should now drive the agenda to make institutional changes that may somewhat permanently secure Indian democracy. Wherever he went, he showed a copy of the Constitution and said it was under threat of being changed if the BJP and Modi got a brute majority of 400 plus. A large section of India appears to have related to his prognosis and therefore, he has to now prescribe the medicine too.

To be fair, Modi did clarify on the charges being made. He said not once but a few times that even if B R Ambedkar came and wanted to change the Constitution he drafted, he will not accept it. But doubt always has a better circulation. What Rahul Gandhi planted perhaps echoed in the minds of Dalits. They perhaps thought a brute majority will push Modi to withdraw reservations. They were within their rights to believe this because the faithfuls of the BJP’s parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had held out this threat in a dramatic fashion in different corners of India for a long time.

One wonders retrospectively if the reason for BJP president J P Nadda’s statement on the RSS, bang in the middle of the election, was to save the BJP from the doubts and disbelief of Dalits. A closer examination of the 2024 vote will offer us clarity.

(Views are personal)

(sugata@sugataraju.in)

Sugata Srinivasaraju | Senior journalist and author of Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi

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