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Saturday, February 21, 2004

dir="ltr">One of the important features of Indian polity since 1996 is the rise of coalition culture at the union level. After decades of single-party dominance, we are now getting used to coalition governments. Happily, coalition governments have proved to be stable and conducive to economic growth. This experience forced Congress to forge pre-electoral alliances just as BJP did in 1998. Clearly, in the foreseeable future we will have coalition governments at the national level. This is a welcome development, as only a coalition will reflect India’s diversity. Honest negotiation and fair reconciliation of conflicting demands are the necessary skills in coalition governments, and both these promote harmony and nation-building. Coalitions also helped build a broad consensus on economic and foreign policies, ensuring continuity and stability.

But this need for pre-electoral alliances is making the national parties increasingly vulnerable. In our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, only a high threshold of voting for a party ensures a reasonable chance of victory. Usually this threshold level is 35-40 percent. Significant, but scattered support base over a whole state, of say under 25 percent, does not pay electoral dividends. In such a situation, even the voters who are otherwise inclined to prefer a party feel that their votes to a losing party are “wasted”. They switch loyalties, and vote for a “winnable” party or candidate.

The large centrist national parties, Congress and BJP, have therefore a dilemma. As Congress monopoly of power came to an end, the political space it vacated has been occupied by other parties in various states. BJP could not grow quickly in a large number of states, and regional parties became dominant players. Today, Congress or BJP may have a sizeable voting share in several states, but that does not get translated into legislative representation. Therefore, they are forced to forge pre-election alliances with regional parties to enhance their prospects of victory. But this has a downside. Once a national party forms an electoral alliance with a regional party, its growth in that state is stunted. First, its electoral presence is limited to constituencies in which it contests. Second, it cannot compete with its alliance partner. This competition is critical for enhancing a party’s appeal and increasing its vote share over time.

As a result of these electoral compulsions in our FPTP system, large national parties are forced to play second fiddle in many states. If we take the seven largest states (as they existed in 1999 before division) which account for 310 Lok Sabha seats, this trend is evident. Of these states, in UP, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, both Congress and BJP are forced to play second fiddle to the local partners. In AP, Congress is a major factor, but is now forced to forge alliances with smaller parties. Only MP sees both  Congress and BJP as major contenders for power.

The pattern has been clear in all large states. In fact, among states with over 20 Lok Sabha seats, only MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat now see BJP and Congress as the two leading political parties. This decline of large national parties is the most significant feature of our political evolution. Our FPTP system accentuates this trend, and encourages growth of regional parties at the expense of BJP and Congress. Slowly, with such political fragmentation, the idea of India is in danger.

True, the regional parties have acted with restraint and broader national outlook. But inter-sate river disputes and other contentious issues are aggravated by regional chauvinism. The travails of Bihari’s in Assam and Mumbai in the recent railway recruitments of semi-skilled workers indicate that economic and social fragmentation follow rise of regional parties. There is no other democracy which is as diverse and complex as India. Fully integrated markets are the prerequisites for the growth of our economy. Inter-state disputes, sons-of-the-soil policies, and regional barriers will undermine our prosperity collectively. One way of promoting unity and integrity is allowing large, centrist national parties to grow, even as regional parties are given opportunities. But FPTP system is leading to an almost irreversible regionalization of our polity. As a result, there is no longer a national verdict in India even in Lok Sabha elections. It is often an aggregate of state verdicts, dependent on local factors and the popularity or otherwise of the state governments. This certainly does not promote political maturity.

What is the way out? If we adopt some form of proportional representation (PR) whereby parties can get representation commensurate with their strength, large national parties can compete with regional parties. National parties then will not be compelled to give up political space and play second fiddle to regional players for short term gains. In order to prevent political fragmentation on caste lines, we can have a reasonable threshold – say 10 or 15 percent vote share in the state – as the minimum requirements for getting representation in state legislature and Lok Sabha from that state. Several social groups will then have to aggregate their interests, and join forces. With such thresholds, PR will actually reduce, not increase the number of political parties. The painful pre-election negotiations and the desperation to perpetuate local fiefdoms and criminals in order to get the marginal vote the ‘powerful’ candidate brings to enhance chances of election will be a thing of the past. There are no second prizes in the winner-takes-all FPTP system. PR will give voice and fair representation to all sections, and brings many more people to the polling stations by increasing choice and competition.

Regional parties will have one legitimate concern with PR. State legislatures will be fragmented, and a stable majority government cannot be formed. This problem can be overcome by directly electing the head of the government in the states. With clear separation of powers between the elected executive and legislature, there will be greater honesty in public affairs. The vicious cycle of illegitimate money power, abuse of office and ubiquitous corruption can be arrested. At the national level, our diversity demands continuance of the current model of government through parliamentary majority. We can also adopt a mixed system combining FPTP with PR system.

We need a political system which accommodates our diversity while preserving our unity, integrates our society and economy, encourages the growth of national parties, and promotes clean politics and integrity in public life. There are simple models which combine the best features of our current model with the benefits of better representation. It is time our parties and media focused on win-win solutions. Short term obsession with power games can sometimes cloud our vision. We need to distance ourselves from the immediate election, and look into the future.

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