For many years now, coalition politics in India has affected governance so adversely that it is perhaps understandable that people will instead wish for a stable government led by a single political party. Consider what happened in the last four weeks. The railway minister was changed because he had presented a Budget that proposed a passenger fare increase — a rational move and long overdue, coming as it did after a gap of about eight years. However, the leader of the party to which the railway minister belonged, which was an alliance partner of the coalition government at the Centre, did not approve. So the minister was replaced with a new one, who dutifully rolled back a substantial part of the passenger fare increase proposal.
Unlike the Union Budget, Railway Budgets do not have to be approved by the Cabinet before they are presented in Parliament. The railway minister consults the finance minister before framing the proposals and the prime minister is kept in the loop. So, who did the new railway minister, Mukul Roy, consult before he modified the Railway Budget proposals on passenger fares as well as other key pronouncements on restructuring the Railway Board and setting an authority for framing tariffs? Was it the finance minister again? And did the new railway minister keep the prime minister in the loop?
The sheer ignominy of a rollback of a proposal after its presentation in Parliament is so shattering an experience that such issues of propriety are perhaps not even being discussed. The Congress leaders in the United Progressive Alliance government should be considering themselves fortunate that none of the Union Budget proposals has so far earned the wrath of the Trinamool Congress or, for that matter, any other alliance partner. Such is the state of the government’s morale that it is worrying less about what it should do to improve administration and is more worried about how to prevent another embarrassing rollback. There is no other reason why the Union Budget carefully eschewed any reference to the need for an increase in the price of petroleum products or a further relaxation in foreign direct investment norms for the retail sector.
To be sure, coalition governments in the past also had equally embarrassing moments while implementing their own policy pronouncements. The United Front government led by H D Deve Gowda fell just after the Union Budget for 1997-98 was presented in Parliament. That too was a coalition government. Everyone feared that what was touted by all as a “dream budget” would have to be sacrificed at the altar of coalition politics. A new United Front government was formed with I K Gujral as prime minister, who mercifully retained the same finance minister. He, naturally, had no hesitation in placing a Budget he had presented under the previous government for approval by Parliament.
Similarly, in 1999, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government fell soon after Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha presented his Budget. There was a major hue and cry over the fate of a Budget that most analysts believed was beneficial for the Indian economy. In the normal course, that Budget should have been allowed to lapse, since the government that had presented it had lost its majority. However, an exception was made and an all-party meeting decided that Parliament would convene specifically to pass the Budget before the Lok Sabha was dissolved and the nation went for a general election. Politicians were keen that the Budget should be passed before they went for the elections, lest the nation accused them of irresponsibility. There was a general sense of relief, but at the same time several disturbing questions had surfaced over governance and the importance of subjecting Budget proposals to thorough scrutiny before approving them. Indeed, Budgets over the years have ceased to engage the attention of parliamentarians in as meaningful a way as they used to do earlier.
It would be naïve to believe that ordinary voters will fail to notice such adverse implications of coalition politics. The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal manages to increase prices of milk, raise tram fares and give its consent to a hike in electricity tariff by power distribution companies, simply because it has a stable majority in the state Assembly. The same party can force the Centre to roll back the proposal for an increase in railway passenger fares or successfully ward off any increase in prices of petroleum products for several months, because the United Progressive Alliance is dependent on its alliance partners for survival.
Indian voters did not take too long to punish governments that failed to perform during five years of their tenure, giving rise to a strong anti-incumbency factor in elections. The adverse implications of coalition politics for governance may now push Indian voters away from endorsing coalition governance that leads to a fractured mandate and a fractured polity. That may not be the end of coalition politics in India, but it would certainly force political parties to think hard and at least agree on a common minimum programme before forming a coalition government.