The BJP’s loss in Jharkhand assembly election is more than just a statement on its failure of governance. It is also a fresh verdict on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s repeated assertions about the kind of political system he believes India needs.
Ever since winning a cushy majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Modi has often told Indians that the country needs a majboot sarkaar (strong government) and not a majboor sarkaar (helpless ‘coalition-based’ government). For a large part of his first term, this held true as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went about winning state after state, solidifying its position as the only political party with the sole right to govern India.
But it was a bubble that was always going to burst, as was Modi’s desire to have the BJP’s saffron imprint all over India – from the Centre to each state and union territory.
So while the BJP’s loss in three states in December 2018 started a reversal of the false hope that India had seemingly given to PM Modi – of wanting a ‘majboot sarkaar’ – the loss in Jharkhand, and before that in Maharashtra, seem to confirm what India had long realised. We are a country of coalitions and there is little room for authoritarianism, which a majority government will almost always end up as – be it under Jawaharalal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajeev Gandhi or now Narendra Modi.
Fears of majoritarianism
India’s experiments with strong governments are marred by slow growth of authoritarian regimes. So, when the BJP returned to power with another brute majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, many political analysts turned sceptical and apprehensive about the future actions of the central government.
And the Modi government only proved them right. Its latest decision to go ahead with the amendment in the Citizenship Act, while ignoring the protests and dangers posed by a partisan legislation to India’s secular Constitution, has become one of the biggest flashpoints of recent years, generating fears in the minds of a large section of the country’s population.
Even if the protesters’ fears are unfounded, as PM Modi claims, the onus to positively convince the citizens and remove all apprehensions lies on the government and the ruling BJP. But the way the events have unfolded – from a brutal, authoritarian crackdown on protesters to different ministers making different claims on the NRC-CAA debate – the Modi government has failed miserably on that count.
The way Modi government first ignored all voices of concerns about its discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill and then doubled down in the face of widespread protests, shows what the perceived absence of sufficient checks and balances could do. Chirag Paswan, the president of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), a coalition partner in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), recently tweeted that his party had advised the government to go for a detailed consultation on the CAA precisely to avoid the current situation. Shiromani Akali Dal leader Sukhbir Singh Badal is also of the view now that the CAA should not have excluded Muslims.
Majority govt and growth
Barring the 1984 Lok Sabha election, no political party in India in the last five decades had received the kind of majority that Modi’s BJP has got.
India’s Constitution makers had envisaged a federal system with strong state governments. All organs of the state power structure – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – have well defined roles to balance each other in a way that the parts functions separately as well as a whole.
But the history of independent India shows this system tends to crack whenever a charismatic leader comes to power with a huge majority.
The notion that a strong and stable government with a comfortable majority for a single party is good for the nation, its economy and its people is not a fact. As argued by Shekhar Gupta, the stable and strong governments from 1950 to 1989 “gave us the below-4-per-cent ‘Hindu Rate of Growth’.” Big reforms came only at the time of coalition governments – from 1989 to 2014, Indian economy moved at a brisk 6-7 per cent growth rate.
Check on decisions
A major problem with strong governments is that they do not show either the requirement or the courage to listen to contrarian views, and thus end up taking wrong decisions to the detriment of the citizens. Who knows if there was a coalition government under Jawaharlal Nehru, India could have avoided the war with China in 1962. We may like to think that had Rajeev Gandhi been the prime minister in a coalition government with a partner in Tamil Nadu, he would have listened to their concerns and avoided sending peacekeeping forces to Sri Lanka.
India’s diversity, with all its religions, languages, castes, races and geographical identities, makes it incumbent upon it to have a government that listens to each voice and treads on a path that suits everyone. It may not be possible to achieve a consensus all the time, but at least the government would get to hear all sides and, perhaps, incorporate some of those in its decision-making. That in itself may eventually make all the difference in whether the decision proves to be disastrously wrong or one where the possibility to undo the damage remains. Taking everyone along becomes a structural compulsion for a coalition government where alternative voices are at least heard – not so much in a majority government, which often becomes a government for the majority.
The good thing is that the Indian polity is finding a way out of the present style of an extremely strong government at the Centre. Five big states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand – have now deserted the BJP. The entire south and central India, barring Karnataka, is being ruled by non-BJP governments. In the last two years, the BJP’s overall footprint on India’s landmass has reduced by half – from its high point of almost 70 per cent in 2017 to 35 per cent now.
So, has the Indian democracy finally found its own way to provide checks and balances to the Modi government? The state elections are a factor. Another is the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, where the BJP has forever lacked a majority. Even with its constituent partners in the NDA, it does not come anywhere close to the halfway mark in the Rajya Sabha.
There are other mechanisms that India has built to thwart a majoritarian polity – one that has existed all along: the people’s movement, led by the young student community. Be it Gujarat’s Navnirman Andolan, Bihar’s JP Movement, the citizens’ rise against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, or the students’ movement against the Modi government’s CAA now, India has always had a section of people ready to make itself heard against all odds. India’s judiciary may be going through a controversial phase, but it has all the powers and means to assert the most important check that a majoritarian regime detests – the upholding of the legal and constitutional rights.
Let’s hope that the system of balance of power grows in India. It’s good for everyone because it saves the governments from taking unilateral decisions in a reckless manner. Strong decisions are not necessarily the best decisions. Not always.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.