If there is a strong possibility of a government at the Centre without either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party in it after 2014, an obvious question is about the nature of governance such a formation can provide, says A K Bhattacharya
The scheduled date for the next general elections is a little more than a year away. But there is already general agreement among most political pundits that neither of the two main political parties -- the Congress and the BJP -- will find it easy to win the requisite number of Lok Sabha seats on its own to lead a coalition government at the Centre. A more likely scenario is a government led by what is commonly referred to as the Third Front -- a coalition of regional parties, who would get together to keep both the Congress and the BJP out of power for different reasons.
Leaders of the Congress and the BJP are acutely conscious of the challenge that the so-called Third Front is likely to pose to their bid to lead the next government. The Congress is trying hard to present a new face to the electorate, which, particularly in urban India, is visibly disenchanted by an obvious lack of governance and a series of corruption scandals that have hit the government in the last several months.
Rural India may still vote for the Congress, as it should remain beholden to the many schemes and benefits from the various entitlement programmes of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA. But the Congress is justifiably worried since, with increasing urbanisation, the footprint of the UPA’s entitlement policies may have shrunk and is no longer large enough to counter the voting trends in urban India.
It is for the same reason -- the growing urbanisation of India -- that the BJP is more focused on making an impact on voters in cities and towns in different parts of the country. So, it has got hold of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to be its main instrument for pulling in more votes to help it form or lead the next government.
Modi’s appeal in urban India is more than it is in villages. He talks a language that goes down well with the urban middle-class Indian. This strategy has its downside too. Modi’s divisive politics can unnerve some regional parties such as Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United, and the BJP’s promotion of Modi may ironically strengthen the chances of a ruling coalition led by the Third Front.
And if there is a strong possibility of a government at the Centre without either the Congress or the BJP in it after 2014, an obvious question that would arise is about the nature of governance such a formation can provide. Perhaps, looking back on how these governments without either of the two major parties performed in the late 1980s and the mid-1990s could provide some answers.
The National Front government led by V P Singh had a short tenure of less than two years, and it was largely preoccupied with its political agenda of uncovering the Bofors bribery scam and expanding the scope of caste-based reservations for jobs and seats in educational institutions. Even as the economy was sliding into a balance of payments crisis and the government’s fiscal indiscipline was on the rise, the V P Singh government took no concrete step to take necessary corrective steps.
Barring some clandestine efforts at seeking funds from the International Monetary Fund, there were no substantive policy measures initiated to tackle the crisis. The only major reformist legislative measure the National Front government could take credit for was the repeal of the infamous gold control legislation.
Once the BJP withdrew its support to V P Singh, the National Front government fell, paving the way for the formation of the Chandra Shekhar government, which enjoyed the outside support of the Congress. This one had an even shorter tenure; the Congress withdrew its support to Chandra Shekhar just days before the government was due to present its Budget.
If the government had been allowed to present a full Budget, the story of India’s economic reforms would have been different. The Chandra Shekhar government and its finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, had shown the courage to take some bold steps to prevent the collapse of the economy, but they fell victim to the electoral politics that the Congress played to regain power at the Centre.
In 1996, a new coalition government was formed and took little time in initiating a series of strong reformist measures to boost the Indian economy. It did not have the required numbers in the Lok Sabha to last a full term, and even had to replace its prime minister to stay in power and salvage a sensible Budget. But even though it was a minority government, it displayed courage to take several bold and reformist steps that stood the Indian economy in good stead.
The point to be noted here is that minority coalition governments are not necessarily bad for the economy, just as a majority government is not always a guarantee of efficient governance. What matters more in the Indian context is the presence of effective leaders in key positions.
The Chandra Shekhar government and the ones led by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral showed that they could take the steps needed to bolster the economy even though they did not enjoy majority support.
And the UPA, in spite of enjoying majority support in the Lok Sabha, has done precious little in terms of reforms in its second tenure from 2009. So, why worry about a Third Front government if it were to be formed after 2014?