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Horse trader, pass by

There has been enormous focus on the ‘constitutional crises’ and the abuse of the Governor’s office during the recent processes of Government formation in Bihar and Jharkhand, where the Assembly Elections of February 2005 yielded fractured verdicts, as well as in Goa, where the toppling game was played out in a number of permutations and combinations, but eventually failed to give either contender a clear and sustainable win. Even after extended crises, the resolution in all three States has been far from desirable – Bihar and Goa are now under President’s rule. In Jharkhand, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition succeeded in cobbling together a Government, despite the Centre’s obvious and desperate machinations, with the support of a small group of independents, who have, however, extracted a disproportionate pound of flesh in Ministerial berths for their ‘cooperation’. It can be nobody’s case that these are victories for democracy, and the issues raised in the heat of political contestation and commentary during these crises were, no doubt, immensely consequential. However, an interesting – albeit incipient – trend appears to have been missed out.

Through much of our recent history, ever since Indira Gandhi consolidated her imperious hold over the nation’s politics, the change of the political order at Delhi has inevitably been the harbinger of death for the regimes of ‘opposition-ruled’ States in the country. Various stratagems were employed to secure this end, as the victors argued – speciously, no doubt – that the mandate in the General Election was a mandate against the regimes in opposition-ruled States as well. Over time, particularly as regional parties consolidated their hold over politics in the States – and exercised increasing influence at the national level through their participation in, or supported to, ruling collations at the Centre – new strategies of survival were devised to circumvent imminent doom after a change of order at Raisina Hill. The most innovative, significant and unprincipled of these was the defection – which a succession of laws has sought to neutralize. And defections were raised to an art form by a growing tribe of ‘Aya Rams and Gaya Rams’, who traded their votes almost openly in the various State Assemblies. This vogue achieved its highest point when an entire ruling party crossed the floor in Haryana to ensure the survival of its Government – an undoubtedly extraordinary experiment that has found ardent imitators in faraway Arunachal Pradesh as well, in the more recent past.

The events of the past months have seen dramatic reversals in this trend, as pre-election coalitions survived despite astonishingly close divisions in the House, where single-digit defections (and these would be possible given the small size of many of the partners in the pre-election coalitions) could have secured a definite result. The NDA stuck together in Jharkhand and Goa. In Bihar, despite the prognostications of political pundits, Laloo Prasad Yadav failed to tempt any of the fractious parties in opposition to cross over to restore Rabri Devi to Chief Ministership.

In all this, there is little doubt that very substantial blandishments would have been on offer – from all sides. The stakes in government formation are high, and while the Ministries that are offered and secured in such deals are visible, the invisible temptations tend to be astronomical as well. It is difficult to imagine the humble (speaking relatively, from Delhi’s perspective) MLA discovering in himself the will and the integrity to resist the many digits that are on offer.

This has, nevertheless, happened, and there is need to investigate this astonishing reversal in a long established trend. Indeed, given the utter and increasing shamelessness of horse-trading in many Assemblies in the recent past – Uttar Pradesh springs immediately to mind – there was a general expectation that the political acceptability of such unethical practices was on the rise, and that this would be the norm in the foreseeable future, unless radical electoral reforms and new legislation was brought in to curb these.

But this time around, these devices failed – again and again; in more than one State. It may be premature to predict that the system is approaching greater maturity, but it is necessary to recognize that it has been the State MLAs – who look tremendously unimportant to political managers located at the Centre – who have pioneered this transformation.

The stability of pre-election coalitions in the recent elections reflects another aspect that deserves close attention. While the age of one- or two-party rule in India is long past; while regional parties are now a permanent fact of the national political scenario; and while coalition politics will remain integral to the management of the country in the foreseeable future; there is evidence of the emergence and consolidation of a relatively stable ‘two-coalition’ system (with marginal exceptions, no doubt) which may function in a manner comparable, though certainly not identical, to a two-party system. One constituent element of this stability of coalitions has also been the consolidation of strongly polarized two-party systems in many of the States – DMK vs. AIADMK in Tamil Nadu; TDP vs. the Congress in Andhra Pradesh; Akalis vs. the Congress in Punjab; Congress vs. BJP in Karnataka; the AGP vs. the Congress in Assam, and so on. The irreducible antipathies of these parties – often rooted in passionate personality clashes and deepening personal enmities – in the States have forced them into permanent coalitions at the national level, and these structures are difficult to dissolve to seize transient opportunistic advantage. While the composite elements are no doubt mean and lurid, the consequences promise a possible and much needed stability and crystallization of two broad ideological blocs.

In assessing the reality and sustainability of this trend, it will be useful to determine the extent to which pressures from the electorate compelled political parties and leaders to remain faithful to their promises and to their pre-election coalitions. A detailed analysis of the success and failure of particular candidates and their past conduct would be necessary to arrive at a conclusive determination in this context. The proportion of new and repeat candidates returned in various constituencies, and their behaviour in the tumult of post-election manipulations could also shed some light on what propelled the decisions that eventually prevailed. It is, nevertheless, useful to note that many of the pioneers of the ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ philosophy and tradition have now been discarded by their party leaderships, and are today languishing at the periphery of both State and national politics.

As already stated, this is still an incipient development, and one that can easily be disrupted in the next uncertain electoral contest. To the extent, however, that it represents the beginning of something that may crystallize into a permanent feature of the Indian political firmament, its impact could be unprecedented, even revolutionary. Indeed, if the major political parties at the national level recognize and seek to harness these emerging trends, reinforcing them with suitable electoral and legislative reforms, they could easily engineer a tectonic shift in the fundamental nature of politics in India.

(Published in The Pioneer, April 2, 2005)





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