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The culture of coalitions

August 18, 2012

NO nikahnama, even if drawn up by the best of lawyers, can guarantee the success of a marriage. Britain has just discovered that this is true of coalitions as well.

No coalition government was set up after such elaborate paperwork as was the Conservative-Liberal Democrat (Lib-Dem) coalition. On May 13, 2010, the parties concluded an initial coalition agreement of some 3,000 words and 90 pledges. Some days later came their programme for government of 16,000 words and 400 pledges. On May 21 there was a Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform comprising, mercifully, of six paragraphs, albeit with many sub-paragraphs.

A mere two yeas later, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has developed fissures. Last July Prime Minister David Cameron was forced, by a major rebellion by 91 back-benchers of his party, to drop the vote on a bill to reform the House of Lords. On Aug 6 he announced that the coalition had abandoned plans for its reform. The same day, the deputy prime minister and Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg declared “The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform … and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken”. In retaliation, he would oppose another reform — redrawing of constituency boundaries.

More fireworks are expected when parliament reconvenes next month. There is, however, little fear of the fall of the government for the nikahnama ruled out divorce. They agreed that “the next general election will be held on May 7, 2015, to be followed by legislation for fixed-term parliaments of five years”.

Accordingly, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act was enacted last September after prolonged debate. There are only two conditions under which mid-term dissolution of the House of Commons will be possible: following a no-confidence motion if no alternative government can be formed within 14 days or following a two-thirds vote of the House. This implies concurrence of the Labour opposition.

The moral of this experience is clear. Coalition agreements are easily made by political leaders but their capacity to deliver depends on the support of the party membership. There were reservations on both sides when the coalition was forged to keep Labour out. Nick Clegg secured his party’s endorsement with great difficulty. Two years later differences between the partners have widened and it is little consolation to either that a parting of ways is difficult and might harm both.

Pakistan and India have had their own experiences of written agreements on coalitions. The Charter of Democracy signed by Benazir Bhutto and Mohammad Nawaz Sharif in London in 2006 provided a framework for cooperation between the PPP and the PML-N. In India, the time-worn instrument is the Minimum Common Programme, first devised in 1967 to provide a façade of principled politics to what were unprincipled accords on power-sharing. Coalitions, all across northern India, broke up. But they set many thinking. What would happen if such dangerous political fragmentation occurred at the centre?

The most sensible answer came not from a political scientist or columnist but from a man for all seasons, S.K. Patil, a prime fundraiser of the Congress and president of its Bombay unit. With stark realism he warned: “It is obvious that the process of coalitions must start and coalitions must be formed not only after but also during and before the elections. If well-planned coalitions are formed before the election, they will develop a capacity of lasting longer and becoming more effective in actual functioning. Coalitions have become a political necessity in India today. It will take a long time, not less than 25 years, to develop a two-party system in India … In many other democratic countries, the two-party system has even now not made any demonstrative impact. In most of the European countries which are democratic, coalitions are accepted as a matter of fact.”

Pre-poll coalitions are also more democratic in that the electorate is given a fair opportunity to pronounce its verdict on the alliance itself.

Around the same time the Research and Policy Planning Division of the Union Home Ministry prepared a study entitled A Comparative Study of Coalitions. It concluded: “If the broad lines of political evolution as emerging from the results of the fourth general elections (1967) are any guide, coalitions cannot always be avoided, and many become inevitable in certain circumstances, if the alternative to it is instability or inefficient government. However, Indian experience has shown that where a coalition was unprincipled, formed purely for the sake of power, it had not endured; on the other hand, where it has been made up of parties with a programme broadly compatible with their ideologies, it has led to a stable government.”

Forty years later this seems rather a counsel of perfection. Ideologies have eroded. The best one can hope for is accord on a specific programme coupled with a will to make the coalition a success. This implies a spirit of compromise, a readiness for give and take along with the sharing of power. Significantly, four governments at the centre based on outside support collapsed as swiftly as they were formed — the V.P. Singh government of 1989, the Chandrashekhar government of 1990, the Deve Gowda government of 1986-1987 and the Inder Gujral regime of 1987-88.

Power, then, must be shared; but it should not be the only cementing force. It is necessary for the parties to also share a vision for the country’s future. In societies with diverse interests and regional forces, coalitions can help strengthen national unity. They will curb the excesses of what Richard Crossman called “prime ministerial government” and impart greater strength to cabinet government.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.