Successful coalition politics is primarily about getting the arithmetic right. But since politics is a means to capture power and government, ruling coalitions, once formed, also need to govern. The Congress party and its allies in the Disunited Progressive Alliance have done a reasonable job of the mathematics— that is why they are still in office. They have, however, made an awful mess of governance. This is because neither Congress nor its allies are able to look beyond the numbers game and recognise the real nature of coalition politics.
It is easy to be galled by Sharad Pawar ( with 9 MPs) when he holds the Union Government to ransom. It is equally easy to be appalled by Mamata Banerjee, whose 19 MPs apparently hold a right to veto any policy measure. Indeed, both Pawar and Banerjee make a mockery of the people’s mandate by acting as though they have at least 100 MPs each, rather than 9 and 19 in a House of 543. It would, however, be wrong to lay the blame for disarray in governance on them alone. Because if the allies pretend that 20 MPs are 100, the Congress runs the Government as if 206 was 272, its coalition adharma. This is in sharp contrast to the Vajpayee- led NDA government which remains the most successful coalition in terms of delivering governance.
Congress has given no ally a seat at the crucial Cabinet Committee on Security that consists of the Prime Minister, and ministers of home, finance, defence and external affairs. Vajpayee chose to give a seat at the high table to then Samata Party chief George Fernandes, even though BJP had 183 seats on its own. Fernandes also doubled up as convener of the NDA. His prominent role helped BJP build trust with all allies.
Congress has also not given its allies any say in key appointments, whether of governors, regulators or top bureaucrats. Again, the NDA accommodated the preferences of alliance partners. TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, who was supporting the NDA only from the outside, was very influential in a number of key appointments. Vajpayee’s inclusive approach ensured that the BJP’s allies saw themselves as genuine partners in the government, rather than as irritants which were necessary only to make up the numbers.
The largest party ought to be magnanimous. If magnanimity does not appeal to Congress, self- interest should. It has the most to lose from a dysfunctional government. It isn’t too late to give its allies a sense of partnership in the Government— give them weightier portfolios, set up a coordination committee, stop blaming them for all corruption, appoint some governors of their choice. These would be a small price to pay in exchange for support on key policy measures. Of course, it may not be possible to get the support of allies on the most contentious issues, FDI in retail to take one example. But, in a working coalition, there must be give and take. The Congress could bargain to drop FDI in retail in return for support on other reformist legislation, say on land acquisition or banking and insurance.
With status quo, the UPA will rapidly degenerate into a dangerous game of bluff. The country will suffer as the game is played out to its logical end— an early general election.
THE LARGEST PARTY OUGHT TO BE MAGNANIMOUS. IF MAGNANIMITY DOES NOT APPEAL TO CONGRESS, SELFINTEREST SHOULD. IT HAS THE MOST TO LOSE FROM A DYSFUNCTIONAL GOVERNMENT.