An obsolete model

Twenty four years ago when Rajiv Gandhi lost majority for the Congress party, he hesitated to form a coalition. We then had fragile coalitions for a couple of years (V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar), a Congress government which survived without majority or a formal coalition (P V Narasimha Rao), a 13-day BJP government followed by two more years of coalition governments (H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral) followed by a coalition which was defeated by one vote within one year (Atal Bihari Vajpayee). Since 1999, we have had three governments which have lasted their full term.

I assume that UPA-2 will last its full term. Rajnath Singh said recently that the BJP will not bring down the UPA government though they wish it would go soon. This establishes a new norm in Indian politics. A coalition formed by one of the two leading parties will be allowed by the other party to last its full term.Sonia Gandhi's example of unseating a coalition government only to find herself unable to form an alternative government will not be repeated.

This simple truth has not yet sunk in.This is why 2013 resembles the days before the 2009 elections. Mulayam Singh has just asserted that the time for coalitions has come! Where has he been for the last 20 years? Readers may recall in 2009 there were a large number of potential prime ministers putting themselves forward—Sharad Pawar, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati. There was a Third Front. All were hoping that the two large parties will fail to get enough seats to form a majority coalition. The result, when it came, surprised the professionals. Congress got above 200 seats and formed a coalition with no problems.

This time around the issue is: Will both parties fail to get enough seats to allow some Third Front parties to form a coalition? The record for many elections since 1989 now is that together the two parties have always got more seats than the required majority; at the least 280 and at most 350. Thus the Third Parties can only form a government if one of the two national parties gives outside support.

If truth be told, the Third Party delusion is past its sell-by date and should be abandoned. The issue is among the two major parties and them alone. This is why for the first time in decades, there is a presidential air to the campaign 'Modi versus Gandhi'. What the rhetoric suggests is that there is a desire among the voters for an end to coalitions where the principal party is held hostage by coalition partners. In UPA 1, the Prime Minister challenged the Left to do its worst and won the nuclear deal vote. It was this boldness which made voters give Congress 60 more seats than it got in 2004. But in UPA 2, the Congress, despite its larger number of seats, has run away from bold decisions and fallen prey to blackmail by coalition partners who have fewer than 20 seats. The result has been dysfunction and weak government. It took till September 2012 before the TMC was dealt with. The UPA will survive, but the question then is if voters vote for the Congress again, will they get a decisive government?

This is the presidential issue. Will either party be led by a decisive person (Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh in UPA 1) who will deal with coalition partners firmly and implement policies which the party came to power promising, regardless of whether some coalition partner does not like it. Narendra Modi's appeal is as a decisive person who will deliver. Congress hopes that by focusing on his anti-Muslim record they will prevent him from succeeding. This is the meaning behind the word 'harmony' which Rahul Gandhi added to the Congress rhetoric of inclusive development in his CII speech.

Rahul Gandhi does not so far seem the decisive leader who would deliver development, inclusive or not. Thus his message at the CII was that problems are complex and require everyone to join hands. Noble sentiments, but people elect governments to solve their problems. Governments cannot outsource solutions to the people.

There are still many months to go. Whoever promises an end to indecisive coalition politics will get the vote of the Indian people.

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