Illicit collusion in coalition

We are approaching the next general election which is due in 2014 or, there is every probability, may be even earlier. In our own interest and that of our children’s, we all need to initiate effort to remove this malady and reform the system

In principle, a “coalition government” is as democratic and constitutionally as valid as any single-party majority government. On the face of it, such governments are more broad-based and far more inclusive in nature. Coalitions also seem to represent larger part of the population, enable blending of diverse ideologies and symbolize collective identity and solidarity of the nation. The façade is so fascinating that such governments should be powerful enough to trigger a boom in prosperity, fortify security and boost up absolute harmony and satisfaction in the society—a dreamful of Ram Rajya!

Far from being so soothing and rewarding, however, the present United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government has given the country more woes than service, prosperity or security by messing up the systemic order so badly that governance became immovably dysfunctional in a quagmire of corruption and scams that have no equal in India’s history.  Only now, freed from Mamata Banerjee’s tantrums, a relieved yet beleaguered UPA flounders to refurbish its smothered image and redeem whatever is left of its credibility by moving ahead with its professed reform plans in a do-or-die style. How far it manages to crawl before doing or dying will depend upon the not so trustworthy friends-cum-foes within and outside the coalition like Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party who have developed uncanny virtues of colliding and colluding at the same time.

Almost all the big blow-ups of political corruption like Bofors, Jain Hawala case, Tehelka, Fodder scam and many more, have ended in damp squib as we can see their beneficiaries enjoying same or more power and pelf to this day. This phenomenon has emboldened the politicians and bureaucrats who now take big blames boldly with arrogant smirk and assured impunity. Politics has thus become a big-ticket trade to make or break governments in India. No wonder newer political parties have been mushrooming.  As many as 1,112 registered unrecognised political parties, 52 state parties and six national parties in India were on record in 2010 as per Election Commission of India’s (ECI) notification dated 17 September 2010. More have been added since.

Read more on unholy coalitions and bad governance.

In the Indian context, ‘coalition’ has emerged as an illicit ‘collusion’ of mutual convenience for fulfilling narrow self-interests of partners. And these partners are sometimes those parties and even individuals who otherwise would be insignificant entities. The first sin committed by the coalition partners, especially those who rush to join the pack after election results, is that they abandon their pre-poll assurances given to the electorate through their manifestos. Casting their warrior robes and arms away, they suddenly start charming those very enemies whom they had wowed to defeat and destroy just a few days ago—but only until the poll results came. They also have no qualms in abandoning their own proclaimed manifestos and agreeing to what they were bitterly opposed if they can see a carrot of substantial political and/or material benefits dangling before them.

Ideologies have given way to opportunistic gaming where coalition partners stick together primarily to exploit their positions either to amass huge wealth by corrupt means or to consolidate their position in a way that would enhance their bargaining power to influence government decisions by blackmail. We are witnessing this blatantly naked show daily in our polity today.  Historically, coalitions have consecutively retarded India’s advance and damaged our credibility abroad from time to time. 


Murky History of our Coalitions

The emergence of Janata Party and its victory in the 1977 general elections was a turning point in Indian politics. In a landmark judgement in 1975, Allahabad High Court convicted Indira Gandhi, debarring her from contesting elections for six years for corrupt electoral practices in her 1971 election against Raj Narain. Her machinations to vindicate her position only aided the public ire to flare up. Her popularity plummeted sharply forcing her to impose Emergency and postpone elections. Demanding her resignation, Jai Prakash Narayan launched ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ (Total Revolution), a vigorous campaign against corruption and a self-serving administration. His call received tumultuous response throughout north India. Heeding his appeal, the opposition parties merged together to form the Janata Party.

Even from the ruling Congress a sizeable chunk parted along with Jagjivan Ram to join JP. Riding on the popular wave against corruption and tyranny, Janata Party won the elections and formed the government with a comfortable majority. Janata Party’s formation was viewed not as a coalition of political convenience but as a potent force united by common aims and driven by what had once appeared a cohesive leadership that had forged together in oneness after dissolving their erstwhile party based identities. India was celebrating victory of good over evil.     

However, all the public euphoria proved to be short-lived as inter-personal and inter-group feuds, rivalries and ambitions started surfacing from the first day. The fusion of the erstwhile parties and ideologies could not level up the crevices between them which deepened with warring leaders, stalwarts like Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram, pulling it apart from the very top. Thus, the Janata Party government that had created history by trouncing Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party for the first time ever amidst much fanfare, collapsed as a failed experiment in 1979.       

VP Singh was viewed as a towering leader in the Indian politics and even his exit from the Rajiv Gandhi government became a momentous event. His coalition (National Front) also crashed within 11 months in 1990.  A funny culture of strange coalitions started evolving soon giving hopes even to fractious factions of small numbers in the Parliament to form government. Chandra Shekhar had a direct support of a Janata Dal breakaway group of just 64 MPs when he was sworn in prime minister with the “outside support” of Congress. As was expected, the Congress pulled down this government within four months after trading malicious charges and counter charges. The country was thus again pushed to mid-term elections in 1991.  

Having failed to win majority in the 1991 general election, the fledgling Narasimha Rao government depended upon the support of Left Front. When faced with a no-confidence motion, it survived by buying JMM support in 1993 and remained embroiled in numerous corruption scandals some of which involved the prime minister himself. The 1996 general election again threw up a hung Parliament. Turbulence marked the next phase of Indian politics with Atal Bihari Vajpayee having to resign within 13 days of his first tryst with the prime ministerial reality.

Coalitions also sprinkle fortunes indiscriminately and often bestow greatness upon some individuals who might never have dreamt of such profusion of grace from the Providence if the worthier had not rivalled themselves. Thus came Deve Gowda, a compromise prime minister, to lead a fragile coalition of the United Front that lasted barely 10 months forcing yet another pre-mature general election in 1997.

IK Gujral who succeeded Deve Gowda also failed to keep his coalition partners like Lalu Prasad Yadav and DMK, and outside supporters like Congress in good humour, thanks to the fodder scam and Jain Commission’s indictment of the DMK in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. The government collapsed cutting short Gujral’s tenure of 11 months.

In our short but roller-coaster history of coalitions, the NDA regime under prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been qualitatively a different experience.  His first stint lasted only 13 days. The next one too was cut short by Jayalalitha withdrawing her support and letting the NDA government collapse within 13 months. Yet, it was marked with some historic events like the nuclear test, the Lahore summit and the Kargil War.

The third time, however, NDA romped home again with a comfortable majority of 303 seats in the 1999 elections. The NDA government not only completed a full five-year term under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but was also marked by some momentous achievements like highways development projects, foreign policy shift to improve relations with Pakistan and China, and a number of economic reforms that accelerated growth at a record level of 7% in 2003. There was, of course, a flipside of the Vajpayee government too. Incidents like the Indian Airlines’ hijack, terrorist attack on the Parliament, the Tehelka scandal et al marred an otherwise progressive era of good governance. Yet, despite pulls and pressures of coalition partners and detractors galore, Vajpayee managed the coalition deftly with sagacity and statesmanship for a full tenure of five years.

Then came the Congress-led UPA coalition in 2004 which is now in the midst of its second phase. In a unique departure from the established democratic norms, India has a prime minister who is not a directly elected representative of the people. Manmohan Singh is undoubtedly the world’s most educated Prime Minister—and the least visible and most silent too.  Further, he is also the humblest of the valiant warrior clan he comes from. Although admired for high integrity and probity in public life, he survived a crucial “Confidence Vote” by garnering support through dubious means amid high drama enacted in the well of the House. It is now common knowledge how currency notes flew in the well of the House in July 2008 as an evidence of cash paid to some BJP MPs through ‘couriers’ from Samajwadi Party with a view to bribing them in exchange of their vote for the government.   


An Era of Unprecedented Corruption and Misrule

No doubt, the economy grew at a record of 7% in 2007-08, but scandals and scams tarnished the image of the UPA government to such an extent that in its second term the governance itself came to a grinding halt under the ever rising sooty smoke of scams—each bigger than the previous. What hits the UPA coalition harder is the fact that these revelations have not come from some jealously conducted sting operations by media but from the country’s highest constitutional watchdog institution—the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG). 

First, the government found it hard to proceed against A Raja and his accomplices for fear of the DMK withdrawing support. In the Commonwealth Games scandal there were too many Congress heavyweights involved that the government again moved reluctantly, if not apologetically, against the culprits.  Some were just let off too. Unprecedented corruption cases involving a large number of ministers and coalition partners has virtually destroyed India’s credibility even as the flood of scams refuses to abate. Investments dried out, prices SOARED in the worst inflationary environment and economic growth has now nose-dived to below 6%. 

Obviously, India is under a coalition curse. Interestingly, the coalition scenario throws open sudden opportunities for anybody and everybody to make a killing.  It is now an emerging culture that offers unusual opportunities to even those without any political identity—the independents.  What bargaining power can a couple of MPs/MLAs have on the floor of the House where the tussle is to form or fell a government? In normal times, sweet nothing; but enormous if the House is evenly balanced or the majority group’s edge is very thin in number. Madhu Koda, an independent MLA then, went on to become chief minister of Jharkhand despite being an independent.  Now an MP, he is in jail for amassing a staggering fortune of Rs4,000 crore through corrupt means. Coalition norms allow him to replicate his Jharkhand tactics in New Delhi and become India’s prime minister one day too soon in the given political scenario. Gopal Konda, another rags-to-riches independent MLA, also now in jail for lowly intrigues and sleazy crime, had also colluded along with a small gang of two-three to help Congress form the government in Haryana for which he was rewarded with a ministerial berth. A handful of JMM MPs had no significance in the Lok Sabha until their support was needed to save the Narasimha Rao government. They demanded hefty amount of money and got it besides political rehabilitation they had never foreseen. Again, in 2008 a similar opportunity knocked at the doors of some sleepy MPs who were paid huge sacks full of high-value currency.

Besides outright bribery, strange ways have been evolved to innovatively trade crime and corruption in exchange of political support. Otherwise, why should the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) act in spurts moving in a blow-hot-blow-cold manner for or against politicians? The agency is being used as a domesticated hound that can be unleashed or muzzled whenever required to round up and hold the useful delinquent politicians under control.  

In August 2007, the CBI proceeded to prosecute Mulyam Singh for amassing benami properties and in December 2008, it withdrew the case on the advice of Solicitor General of India for no justifiable legal reason! Similarly in Mayawati’s disproportionate assets case, the CBI soft-pedalled it to enable the apex court to quash the proceedings against her for want of evidence which the CBI could have—and should have—provided. Ideologically or politically, there is nothing common among Mulayam, Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh—only corruption and the danger of annoying beyond a point is holding them on the same side.  

Political thinkers in India and abroad are perplexed at the incredible history being written by the world’s largest democracy today. Here, we have a minority government (deficient by 21 MPs as of now) which is being howled and condemned by all—within its own ranks and those out of it. It has been badly stuck in an ever-expanding quagmire of scams, unable to run a Parliamentary session or push through any major policy decision. The entire country is angry at it as can be seem from the masses that readily rally behind any call against the government which has now become a synonym for corruption and misrule. What a wonder it is that with all political parties, media, people crying in chorus against it and even the judiciary and constitutional authorities indicting it for so many wrongs, a minority government in India is not collapsing! This is the power of illicit collusion in which innovative stratagems are so deftly designed that it would be hard to tell a friend from a foe.

While everyone seems to be shooting at the government, not all shooters are its enemies. There are many in the garb of these shooters who are just burning crackers, firing only blank or smoke—no lethal ammunition. Those who vociferously abuse the government most outside (Samajwadi Party, for one) the parliament would not vote against it if a “no-confidence motion” were brought in by the opposition.  And we, the gullible voters, thought our elected representatives were fighting to safeguard our interests in the Parliament.

Is the government passing the buck? Click here to know.


Rise India, rise—Arrest the Decline Now!       

Drastic reforms are needed urgently but how can reforms come in when the very mechanism of introducing reforms has become defunct or hostile to the idea? We are approaching the next general election which is due in 2014 or, there is every probability, may be even earlier.  In our own interest and that of our children’s, we all need to initiate effort to remove the malady and reform the system. The next election too might throw up a hung parliament at the Centre and hung assemblies in the states. Initiation of early reforms can commence even now if enough public opinion builds around these ideas:

  1. Public aversion to crime and corruption must become actively visible and loud enough to force the political parties to avoid fielding tainted candidates in the elections.
  2. Judiciary must take suo motu cognizance of criminal cases pending against occupants of public offices including ministers, MPs, MLAs and others and order speedy time-bound trials by fast track courts. During the pendency of the cases, they must remain suspended from their positions and re-instated only after being fully absolved by the court.
  3. Pre-poll pacts among parties have the sanction of people who voted them as partners in that alliance. Therefore, they cannot break away and switch sides midway as TMC and RLD have done in the current Parliament. If they do, they must first resign and seek fresh mandate of the people in a snap poll with the countdown for their mid-term election commencing from the day they resigned or withdrew from the coalition.      
  4. In the event of there being a hung parliament or state assembly, the prime minister or the chief minister should be elected by the elected MPs/MLAs on the floor of the House.
  5. Finally, there should be fixed tenures of all legislatures including the Lok Sabha.  It shall discourage blackmailing tactics of the detracting forces and also the opportunistic rush of the ruling clique to encash their momentary popularity on certain occasions. Besides, fixed tenures will also save huge national wealth that is wasted in repetitive mid-term polls forced upon the nation by whims and fancies of a few individuals.  The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) survey report put the overall expenditure of India’s last general election (2009) at a staggering Rs10,000 crore.

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(Col Karan Kharb is a military veteran who commanded an infantry battalion with many successes in counter-terrorist operations. He was also actively involved in numerous high-risk operations as second in command of the elite 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard (NSG) widely known as “Black Cat Commandos”. He conducts leadership training and is the author of two bestsellers, “Made to Lead” and “Lead to Success”, on leadership development that have also been translated into foreign languages.)

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