There was a time when an idea or an ideology was a strong bond that brought together people from different states, speaking different languages, professing different faiths, born in different castes and belonging to different economic classes of society. Political parties were founded on the basis of an idea or an ideology. The foremost example in India is the Indian National Congress started in 1885.
The main aim of the founding fathers of the Congress was ‘to obtain a greater share in government for educated Indians and to create a platform for dialogue between them and the British’. There was no thought about securing independence. That came much later, between 1919 and 1929.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), although it protests that it is not a political party, is another example. The idea that binds its members is Hindu Rashtra. Whatever it may have meant in the initial years, it is now an atavistic and xenophobic ideology that targets Muslims, Christians, Dalits, immigrants and, in a subtle way, disparages women, non-Hindi speaking people and Other Backward Classes.
There are many examples at the state level. The DMK was founded on regional pride, love of Tamil, self-respect, anti-superstition and anti-caste. Its splinter, the AIADMK, was ostensibly born out of a crusade against corruption.
No ideology remained unchanged. The Congress, over the years, vowed to win independence, accommodated conservatives and progressives, moved to the Left, adopted secularism and socialism, shifted to the Centre, espoused a market economy, embraced welfarism, and now is trying to define its economic and social policies that will distinguish it from the BJP. The BJP has become unabashedly more Hindu nationalist and more capitalist. The Communist parties have accepted multi-party democracy. Regional parties have also moderated their policies and positions. For instance, the AIADMK that broke away from the DMK was, from the word go, a theistic party and the DMK, in recent years, has categorically shed atheism.
I have reflected on these parties and the changing ideologies. Every ideology seems to include the believers but also seems to exclude the non-believers whose votes and support are as necessary as those of the believers. Hence, the need for constant change and accommodation. The non-believers who found themselves excluded formed political parties that reflected their sympathies or antipathies. Thus, peculiar antipathies led to the formation of the Congress (O) and Congress (R), Janata Dal, SP, NCP, BJD and Telugu Desam. Desire for a separate state or more autonomy inspired the formation of the TRS and AGP.
Yet, significant sections of the people were left out or felt they were left out — and still feel so — by the numerous political parties of India. Among them are Muslims and Dalits. These sections cannot be condemned as communal or casteist. As long as they are excluded from mainstream politics, these sections will, justifiably, start their own political parties. That exclusion, either de jure or de facto, is in my view, central to understanding Indian politics and the desire for coalitions.
I may recall that the BJP did not field any Muslim candidate in Gujarat (2017, 182 seats, Muslim population 9.65 per cent) or in Uttar Pradesh (2017, 402 seats, Muslim population 19.3 per cent). What should the Muslims in the two states do? Other parties indeed adopted a different approach, fielded Muslim candidates, but more often than not it was tokenism. In the case of Dalits, all parties relegated them to ‘reserved’ constituencies. The net result is more political exclusion than political inclusion. In course of time, Muslims, Dalits and other excluded sections realised the need to form separate parties to defend and advance their interests.
The All India Muslim League was founded in 1906. In independent India, there are many Muslim-founded parties: the IUML, AIUDF, AIMIM and other smaller parties. Likewise, Dalits founded the BSP, LJP (in Bihar) and VCK (in Tamil Nadu). The RSS and BJP bash the Muslim-founded parties but ally with Dalit-founded parties; nothing can be more cynical. (The BJP reportedly allied with the AIUDF in a zilla parishad election in Assam.)
Better for Governance
Given a number of exclusive parties, coalitions have shown the way for more inclusive politics. In the current elections, Muslim- and Dalit-founded parties have found space for themselves in coalitions in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. I think that is good. If these parties contested alone, they would find it difficult to enter legislative bodies and be forced to remain by-standers and agitators. It is better that they enter Parliament and state Legislatures and participate in the governance of the country and the states.
Every party tries to put together a coalition. It is possible that in some elections in some states a political party may be able to win a majority on its own but, even in such cases, the party would prefer to aggregate the votes of a few more parties and consolidate its majority. Most elections have now become contests between coalitions. In the current state elections, two broad coalitions are ranged against each other in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry UT. In West Bengal, there are three coalitions but not of equal strength. My experience has been that a coalition government is more responsible and more responsive.
Vajpayee’s and Dr Manmohan Singh’s governments were coalitions. Therefore, let’s not damn electoral alliances or coalition governments. Such governments are better than single party autocratic regimes and deliver better outcomes.