Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Systems of political thought
Kamal Mitra Chenoy
The current coalitional party system has been long in the making. Before independence, especially from the Thirties, when party politics became vigorous, a multi-party system evolved, in which the Congress and the Muslim League were the two poles. This was demonstrated by the results of the 1937 elections. But with Partition, the League migrated to Pakistan, and the political field was left open for the Congress.
By the time independent India had its first General Elections in 1952, the Congress had established itself as the predominant national party. This was not only due to the vacuum created by the departure of the Muslim League (which continued to exist in a reformed, albeit truncated, form in Kerala and elsewhere). The Congress succeeded in establishing itself as the party of the political centre. It had its leftists and ex-communists, its conservatives and free marketeers. It had a Brahminical leadership and eminent Dalit and OBC leaders like Jagjivan Ram and Kamaraj Nadar. The Congress then represented a coalition of disparate groups. This went on till the late Sixties.
Since it was able to co-opt influential groups, other political parties were constrained to act as parties of pressure. The Communist Party would pressure it from the left, the Swatantra and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh from the right. Upper castes, rich farmers, industrialists, workers, minorities, dalits, adivasis, all had representatives, both within the Congress, and in pressure groups influencing it from outside. Since the Congress was a coalition of all these social groups and more, it was widely perceived as their best representative. This is how the party crowded out the opposition. The social classes and castes wooed by opposition parties were able to get their demands accommodated by the Congress, or in most cases, believed that party was its best bet.
This was the basis of the Congress being the dominant party in the political system, what political scientists have called the Congress party system. And as long as the Congress functioned as a coalition incorporating most influential castes and strata, it rendered the opposition largely powerless. This, however, was the national picture, the state of politics in the Union. In a significant number of States, regional parties, and the communists in Kerala and West Bengal, provided an alternative to the Congress. But until 1967, the Congress party system remained in place. The post-Nehru leadership of the Congress, notably his filial, though not political, successor, Indira Gandhi, was unable to keep the coalition intact. Thus the widespread losses in the 1967 elections. Despite her thumping victory in 1971, she was in a crisis by late 1974 and had to declare an unprecedented internal emergency the next year.
The coalition ruptured not merely because of the errors of the Congress leadership. The process of economic change and social stratification rendered the earlier coalitional politics unfeasible. Despite truncated and diluted land reforms, the intermediate castes, the OBCs, were now increasingly influential in many states, starting in the South. They would no longer accept Savarna leadership which was traditionally entrenched in the Congress. The agrarian elite began to dominate state politics, they were no longer prepared to accept domination of a brahminical, westernised elite. So the instability in electoral politics that followed was fundamentally a consequence of societal change, not primarily the outcome of the incompetence of an authoritarian Congress leadership.
The Indira Gandhi leadership of the Congress was marked by a decline in the party's democratic functioning. Party elections were not held for years on end, and important organisational posts were filled by her nominees. Chief Ministers and Cabinet Ministers who were seen as potential power centres were summarily removed from office, irrespective of their merit or performance. The earlier policy debates within the party, which led to coherent policy alternatives being discussed, for example in the AICC Economic Review, were dispensed with. Thus bank nationalisation, the abolition of privy purses and the nationalisation of wholesale trade in foodgrains, were not the consequence of a participatory policy debate, but a product of Indira Gandhi's "stray thoughts", and were legitimised as such.
Since policies were not formed on the basis of informed debate in a democratic organisation, plebiscitary politics became the order of the day in the Congress. Thus in 1971, the slogan was garibi hatao, in 1977, the defence of the Emergency, and in 1980, "the government that works." This gravely weakened the ideological coherence and appeal of the Congress, and was reflected in the party's electoral decline. The crisis of the leadership and the ruling clique, rapidly became that of the entire party, and then of the regime itself, as during the Emergency. This lack of ideological basis, and accountability within the party, led to the rise of unscrupulous and cynical politics, the watermark of which was the Congress's initial promotion of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala to embarrass the Akali Dal. The tragic events that followed, including Indira Gandhi's assassination cost the country grievously.
All these factors culminated in the decline of the Congress and paved the way for coalitional politics. Since no other party had been able to form a coalition similar to that of the earlier Congress, a coalition of parties was the only result. Briefly, the Janata party, itself a coalition of Congress rebels, old socialists, centrist parties, and the Jana Sangh, governed from 1977 to 1979. But contradictions with the RSS, with George Fernandes, Raj Narain and Charan Singh leading an anti-RSS campaign, led to the disintegration of the party. The Congress came back to power alone in 1980, and aided by the martyrdoms of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 and 1991, after the collapse of the V. P. Singh government which depended on support from both the left and the BJP. P. V. Narasimha Rao's minority government survived only through the bribing of JMM MPs and others, cloaking the decline of the Congress.
In the meantime, an increasing number of States slipped away from the Congress including major bastions like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, underlining the demise of the Congress party system. This process appears irreversible. The OBCs and Dalits have found different parties to represent their interests, and the upper castes in the North have in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh turned to the BJP. Under the circumstances, the Congress' return to power in the biggest States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is a far cry. But no single party formation has come close to replacing the Congress. The BJP prospered in the last elections through judicious alliances with secular parties. It had more parties in its coalition than the United Front. The coming elections will again witness a contest of coalitions.
The process of social stratification and caste and minorities consolidation has strengthened diverse political formations. The RJD and SP will continue to attract OBC and minorities support as the BSP will continue to consolidate the Dalits. In U.P. and Bihar, the upper castes will continue to back the BJP. Regional parties like the Akali Dal, National Conference, DMK, AIADMK, Shiv Sena, Telugu Desam, Lok Shakti and myriad parties in the north east will continue to play a significant role. As will the Left which is a major regional force in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. All this will ensure the continuation of coalition politics.
The capitalist class, long a supporter and financier of the Congress, too underwent a transformation. Gone was the commitment to an independent, self-reliant capitalism, that had led FICCI in 1953 to call for "Swadeshi" policies. Now Indian capitalists want maximal avenues for foreign capital and are willing to become junior partners of MNCs. Thus the old socialist rhetoric that enabled the Congress to attract the workers, middle class and the poor, has now been discarded. But since capitalists have an alternative in the BJP and its allies, their support to the Congress is no longer assured. Rich farmers, earlier staunch allies of the Congress, can now support the regional parties. The workers have also become disenchanted with the Congress drive for economic liberalisation and disinvestment which has led to unprecedented unemployment.
Thus traditional support bases of the Congress have become disaffected and have found new parties to support. Since these classes, strata and castes have not transferred their loyalties to any single party, including the BJP, this has strengthened the coalitional character of the present electoral system. But for a dominant party system to re-emerge, either under the aegis of the Congress or the BJP, one of these parties will have to become a coalition like the Congress of old.The exclusivist politics of the BJP rules out the possibility for itself. But for the Congress to rebuild a coalition, it will have to offer an attractive package for the workers, poor and lower castes. The economic liberalisation rhetoric which appeals to the affluent capitalists and middle class will not suffice.
Some critics consider this a bad thing, a sign of political instability which will bedevil India's growth prospects. This is misguided. Coalition politics will militate against authoritarian tendencies revealed during the Emergency and the unaccountability of ruling parties. Today's diverse parties represent diverse social interests and groups, and the diversification of political power is symptomatic of democratisation. A diverse coalition by the logic of its representation will be accountable to diverse interests including those not earlier represented in political power. This makes coalitions more democratic, than less representative single ruling parties.
The problem lies in the weakness of a coalition culture. Such a culture is strong in several States, notably in Kerala where two coalitions have long contended for power, and in West Bengal where the Left Front coalition has ruled for decades. A coalition culture will have to be developed and strengthened, and leading political parties will be constrained to contribute to this to survive in power. The BJP has learnt the coalition game substantially in its current stint in power, and both it and its Congress(I) rival will have to depend on coalition partners and their continued support in the next Lok Sabha. So contrary to the prophets of doom, coalition politics can be a concomitant of the country's progress. Given current political realities it will have to be.
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