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Commentary/Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Federalism does not dawn merely because regional parties take part in the central government

How is that mature democracies like Britain elect a government with a clear majority time and again, while we in India, proud that we are the largest democracy in the world, are unable to elect an outfit to govern us for five straight years?

It is time, maybe, to raise the topic of a two-party system, since even in the mother of Parliaments which inspired our Constitution makers to pick the Westminster model over the presidential form of government, there are only two main political parties in the fray, even though there are other minor entities. The much-touted American system too is open for a wildcard entry like Ross Perot, so the solution perhaps lies in narrowing the field to prevent votes breaking up.

India's is a peculiar case of democracy when one compares it with the other two large functional democracies, the US and the UK. Unlike the last two, India has always been dominated by just one political party, which was, till recently, the Congress, the party of independence etc. For the Congress, which for a long time collected interest on its national movement fixed deposit kept with its votebank, its advantage lay in the fact that other votes were splintered among its opponents. There was no major, country-wide political party to oppose it at least during the early days of Indian democracy, since all political leaders till then came from the Congress. As disillusionment set in its ranks, some leaders broke off and formed their own entities, but it was the Congress all the way.

Things changed for the first time, when the various leaders realised that the only way to end Congress hegemony lay in joining hands and form an alternative national entity, but this was more a political imperative than an ideological one. Thus was born the first, national, anti-Congress front, the Janata Party.

It proved many things, that still hold good today despite the fact that the Congress has been replaced at the polity's centrestage by the Bharatiya Janata Party. One is that the only way to keep the Congress out of power was to ensure against splitting up of the anti-votes. Two, no individual leader is bigger than the combination, a lesson which the Janata Party of 1977 overlooked and which the United Front has kept in mind assiduously.

Not surprisingly, the first experiment only served to bolster the Congress claim of being indispensable, and it could monopolise its claim on stability.

The second anti-Congress experiment was conducted with greater astuteness, since its architect was an ex-Congressman of long standing, V P Singh, even though this experiment was of a shorter duration than the previous one. He realised the imperative of first breaking the Congress's monopoly, and then its votebank. With it emasculated, he had hoped that his own party, the Janata Dal, would be able to step in.

He succeeded, at least partly. By forging links with the Left and the Right, he managed to ensure one-to-one contests in most constituencies in the north where hitherto all political battles have been decided. The result was a foregone conclusion: the Congress was forced to sit in the opposition, despite being the single largest party.

Singh's next step, of breaking the Congress's votebank through implementing the Mandal Commission report, had a fallout he may not have anticipated. As the BJP realised the effort to marginalise it -- if the JD emerged as the alternative to Congress, the flip side was eclipse of the BJP -- it pulled out all stops to consolidate its own base.

The Congress, thus, saw a shrinking of its votebank, but the beneficiary was not the JD, as V P Singh had hoped, but the BJP, which was able to harness the widespread anger among the upper classes at what they saw was betrayal by V P Singh. Mainly because it lacked an organisational structure, the JD lost this battle to the well-oiled BJP.

Today, there is a three-way break-up of votes. The BJP is clearly the frontrunner, if taken on its own steam, and then there is the Congress and the United Front, an outfit made up of parties whose main rival at the regional level is, ironically, the Congress.

What this shows is that no political entity, the BJP, the Congress and the UF, will be able to get a majority unless two of the three join hands. And to give stability to the Republic, this unity will have to be a durable one. In other words, two sides will have to merge, if the nation is not to be rocked by political crises as we saw a month ago.

This is also the question that Congress and UF leaders will have to wrestle with. Is their present unity only to keep the BJP out of power and possibly to eclipse it, after which they will revert to fighting each other? Since the writing on the wall is for stability, translated as political maturity, we need to move to a system that alternates between two large entities, like in the US and the UK.

There are a couple of catchwords that the UF has been throwing out -- 'true federalism' and 'the era of coalitions having dawned' -- both of which are specious. India's Constitution, which came into effect nearly 50 years, is unitary in nature. True, numerous amendments over the years have diluted its nature, but true federalism comes when the Centre sheds its responsibility to the states -- like in the USA.

If India were truly federal, as the UF says it is, the Maharashtra chief minister would not be blaming the Centre for not sanctioning the World Bank loan for its much-needed transport project. Federalism does not dawn merely because regional parties take part in the central government.

And defenders of coalition politics at the Centre often point to the successful experiments in Europe. Again, what is not being said is that almost all the countries where coalition has succeeded are mono-ethnic. And because India is a country of subnationalities, coalition politics is not something welcome at the federal level.

England's success with parliamentary democracy makes it imperative that India too moves towards a system dominated by two parties and marked with a few smaller parties. And the ongoing experiment in New Delhi, I for one hope, will hasten the day when we too will have two clear-cut formulations to choose between at the Centre.

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Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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