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Coalitions: Both art and science

Updated June 17, 2013

enter image description hereAllow me to start with a digression.

One of the best descriptions of India that I have read comes from Shashi Tharoor, currently in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers, author and former under-secretary general for public affairs at the United Nations.

His metaphor of India as a thali is both appealing and enduring.

“If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast,” Tharoor has argued.

India is nothing but diverse. In every which way – language, dress, food, religion, dialect, caste, culture – you name it and the country has it.

Its diversity has consumed those with monochromatic views. Its electorate has humbled those who felt that they were entitled to rule simply by birth.

Equally, it has been unkind to those who feel that they have a right to rule India because they belong to the majority Hindu religion, which itself is practised in diverse forms.

My love for diversity doesn’t take away from the myriad problems and drawbacks India suffers from and the absolute need to resolve them.

It’s a difficult country to understand and even more difficult country to govern.

Many have described the Congress party, in its grand old avatar as a coalition, which ruled the country from 1947 to 1977. After being voted out after Emergency ruled by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Congress and Mrs. Gandhi returned to power in 1980.

The baton passed to Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, whose assassination led to the assumption of power by P.V. Narasimha Rao (who presided over the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992) and became the last Indian prime minister to run a single-party government from 1991-1996.

After that it’s been a succession of coalition governments.

Run either by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, these multi-party governments have governed India for nearly two decades.

Like them or hate them, coalitions are the Indian reality, which is unlikely to change anytime soon.

If anything powerful regional parties and leaders like Nitish Kumar (Bihar), Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), Naveen Patnaik (Orissa), Maywati and Mulayam Singh Yadav (Uttar Pradesh) and Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu) look stronger when compared to the BJP or the Congress.

The short point is this: whoever wants to run India in 2014 will have to build and work a coalition government.

Enter the BJP with Narendra Modi, the divisive chief minister of Gujarat, who did little to stop the massacre of 1,000 Muslims in February 2002.

He’s quite different from the only Prime Minister the BJP has offered to the nation – the ailing Atal Bihari Vajpayee – the master of political ambiguity – who often ran the government by his silences rather than by words.

While part of the BJP establishment, which believes in the principle of Hindu supremacy, Vajpayee managed to project himself as standing a little distance away from the core objectives of his party.

Modi’s appointment as the BJP’s campaign chief led to the short-lived resignation of senior leader and Karachi-born Lal Krishna Advani from all party posts.

His projection as the tallest leader in the BJP – to which Advani has objections (along with others) – has already led to fissures with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has terminated his 17-year-long alliance with the BJP.

In sum, Modi is a divisive leader – not acceptable to secular Hindus (India’s largest vote bank) and to Muslims in general because of his open espousal of Hindu communal politics.

A bankrupt BJP should understand that there’s no way he can build or run a coalition government.

The collapse of the alliance in Bihar simply confirms this hypothesis.

Not all the corporate funding for Mr. Modi, not all the Twitter messaging and fudging facts about Gujarat’s development record can turn him into an acceptable leader for thali India.

Reducing your appeal is not going to allow you to build a new coalition – either with political parties or with the electorate. Particularly when you don’t have a base in the whole of South, North-East and East India.

And, as journalist Ajit Sahi writes, the numbers don’t really stack up for the BJP and Modi.