Tuesday, June 04, 2024

The Problems in Democracy: Massive Mandates and Coalition Governments

Democracies are considered great forms of government. But, I believe, they have their own shortcomings.

In multi-party democracies like India, for example, a 'massive mandate' for one single party could be a huge problem.   

And so are situations where no single party achieves an absolute majority; that which is needed to form the government. 

While a huge people's mandate shows us the faith reposed by the people in the winning party, this victory,  I think, is not in the best interest of the nation.  The opposition gets drastically reduced and its feeble voice in the parliament 

When a coalition of parties forms the government, it becomes a somewhat unstable government. On its head dangles the Democles' sword, a constant fear, of the loss of the support of the alliance, or some of its members. 

The difference in party ideologies creates an unhealthy relationship - like a forced marriage -  where power-sharing becomes extremely difficult. A very uncomfortable adjustment ensues, and the government will not be as effective as it should be.

Let us have a look at both.

Massive Mandates - Past and Present

The first time I saw the phrase ''historic mandate'' was on the cover of the India Today magazine, when the Indian National Congress Party’s Rajiv Gandhi had had a massive poll mandate in 1984. 

It was soon after his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the sympathy wave had worked in favour of the party as well as that of the young new politician who soon be the Prime Minister. 

I was very young, but I very distinctly remember seeing the magazine hanging from a bookstore awning. I remember it because of the word ‘mandate’, which was new to me, then.

The Congress party had secured an unprecedented 404 seats of the total 545 seats in the Indian Parliament. A feat that remains, thus far, unemulated, by any party. (For a full list of Indian General elections results, and the party wins, you can click here click here).

In the 1984 general elections, BJP had won only 2 seats. Formed in 1980, as a morphed party from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS/JS) which had existed from 1951-1977, the new BJP was hardly anywhere on the political horizon then.

But things changed a lot, in the last two or three decades, in its favour. 

Now, with the massive mandate that BJP itself has gotten in 2019, of over 300 seats, it has become the second political party, only after Congress, to secure the highest number of seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament.

In 2024 now, BJP has been aiming for char sau paar or four hundred plus seats. However, by my personal observation of the current political climate, I am sure it is not an attainable number.  

Massive Mandates - The Pitfalls

Whether of Congress then, or of the BJP now, Here’s my opinion: Both 'massive mandates'' have been extremely unhealthy for Indian democracy, 

Massive mandates make the opposition weak.  Bills get passed without adequate debate, and often, with hardly any debate. Opposition benches lose their voice. Their feeble protests will go unheard in the din the majority makes.  Sometimes the bills proposed by the opposition may not even get tabled.

Ruling parties are known to misuse government machinery. 

There would be rampant abuse of power. Take, for example, the India of the recent past. There have been allegations that the supposedly independent bodies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Central Board of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Election Commission of India (ECI), and even the Supreme Court, have been doing things under pressure from the ruling party and that they have all not been impartial as independent bodies. 

Instead of being an example for an ombudsman, each body gets relegated to the state of a stooge.  

The ruling party might deny all these accusations, but as they say, sometimes, there is no smoke without fire.

In ‘majoritarian regimes’ – a phrase I hesitantly use – the voice of the minorities is drowned. 

For example, in the parliament today, there’s not a single Muslim MP in the ruling party that is overtly a promoter of Hindutva ideology.

So, where’s the representative form of the government that democracy is supposed to be?

When minorities feel unsafe and feel threatened, it is never good for the country.  

We have seen cases in many countries worldwide, where whole minority communities have been abused because of the second-class status they were assigned. 

The failure of the Fourth Estate

Truth can also be twisted by these majoritarian regimes which often control the mass media. They can buy out communication channels with wide reach, and they can even buy the journalists who do not hold onto ethics as they should. They become propaganda machines and not genuine and impartial outlets for the people’s news and views.

When political parties start using social media channels too, they can spread hate and division. The constant mockery and vilification of the leaders of the parties they are opposed can distort the truth and give rise to many fake news stories. 

I strongly believe that journalists in a democracy should be largely anti-establishment

The Fourth Estate should hold the governments accountable. But governments elected by massive mandates can even snub the voice of dissent; the very voice which should be encouraged for the sake of progress.

While we all believe that, in a democracy, the separation of the three branches of the government – the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary – makes the government strong, it is the misuse and abuse of these constructs that have caused the downfall of many a government. Especially governments that have been formed by the massive mandates of the people.

Coalition Governments

I believe that coalition governments are also harmful to multi-party democracies.

When no single party gets the absolute majority to form the government it must make do by accommodating with other parties.

Accommodation is but an adjustment due to discontent. There will be a lot of give and take between the parties that form the government. But all parties are unhappy with the vote share they were able to secure.

Coalition governments are formed on the notion of power-sharing. And with ministerial posts and government positions being allotted based on which party won how many seats, it is mostly confusing.  

Positions get chosen not on the merit of the incumbent candidates but on the mere availability of certain individuals in a party, at that given time. Simply put, these will become governments that have not been striving for an optimum feasible solution but only for a bare minimum adequacy. Accommodation politics can put the entire nation at a disadvantage in the long run. 

The hotchpotch of ideologies, within a coalition, can cause huge discontent during policymaking in the legislature. The seeking of votes for a bill to be passed becomes a necessity for survival, in power, and not an ideological outcome for the benefit of the nation.

And then, there is always that constant threat to the stability of the government. 

The alliance can fall apart at any time. The discontent parties in the political alliance can threaten to withdraw support or might withdraw support; sometimes even for trivial differences.

Coalition Parties post 1947 -  One in Britain, Many in India 

In Britain, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, once political opponents, hailed the creation of the first coalition government since 1945 (or since Churchill's time).

Hinting that "a forced marriage is doomed to fail", about the 2010 Cameron-Clegg coalition, in 'The House'', Sebastian Bale wrote this:

Though subsequent events might have undone the coalition’s legacy, those involved hope history will look back favourably on its key focus: two parties working together in the national interest – a loftier motivation than the power grab critics believe led to its inception. 

It ran the full term. Interestingly, the line, "Political experiment proved surprisingly durable but threatens to devastate Lib Dems" appeared in the Financial Times, just before the elections of 2015, when Cameron's Tory government came to power. This time without a coalition.

While the Cameron-Clegg alliance stayed put, policy-making and nation-building took the secondary place and the government's efficiency was found wanting.

In India, it was in 1977 that the formation of a Janata Party coalition government laid the foundation for the era of coalition politics. 

To defeat Indira Gandhi - who brought upon herself the ire of India for her  Émergency'- other political parties got together, and succeeded.

Since then many coalition governments like NDA and UPA  have all come up but did not do their job as a united alliance.

Numerous cases of power-sharing differences gave way to allegations or charges of corruption on one another that made the governments lose focus on governing effeciency.

Conclusion - what is better? 

Actually, neither the massive mandates for one party (that forms the government), nor a coalition of political parties (that forms the government, but struggles with power-sharing between parties) are good for a democracy. Or, that is what I believe.

A mid-way is always better, with a good winning party and with a strong opposition.

Unlike in Indian democracy where multiple parties vie for power, I believe, the US model, where only two parties - the Democrats and Republicans - fight against one another would be better for a nation's governance.  

Some argue, however, that having ONLY two ideologically different parties is not an answer. But I think it is. 

After all, one should rule, and the other should hold the rulers answerable and accountable.

In Conclusion, while it is hard to always predict the people's mandate, it would be good for a democratic nation if no massive mandates and coalitions are formed.