The South Asia Channel

Beware the Coalition

Here we are: The world eagerly awaits the results of India's month-long national election process. With voting set to conclude on May 12 and results to be announced May 16, India could have a new prime minister and government in just a matter of days.

While no one can credibly predict the outcome of an Indian election, most polls and pundits seem certain that Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge with the largest bloc, thereby installing him as prime minister. From sources as varied as the Financial Times and the Economic Times, this prospect is being welcomed as the "jolt" that India needs.

Modi is being hailed as a savior who will finally focus on economic restructuring and drive India's growth back up into the double digits. As the accepted wisdom goes, Modi will be the political Lord Rama rescuing India's economic Sita from Ravana's slow-growth clutch. You can almost hear the sighs of relief coming from all corners as the government of Dr. Manmohan Singh limps meekly to a close.

The only trouble with this picture, though, is that Modi will certainly not be the savior whom everyone assumes. In fact, no matter how much he wants to be, no matter how aggressive or pragmatic he strives to be, once in office, he simply cannot be. Not because of Modi himself or his policies, but because of how Indian politics has evolved over the past 25 years.

Absent from much of the political discussion surrounding the election has been the fact that India's next prime minster (whoever wins) will undoubtedly head a coalition government. To be sure, coalition governments in New Delhi have become so commonplace now that they are hardly newsworthy. The last prime minister to hold office based on one-party rule was Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s, before the BJP was even regarded a legitimate national contender.

Since then, India has seen a proliferation of regional parties that began at the state level and slowly gained prominence until they became power players on the national scene. This splintering of the political landscape has been a positive development in many respects. For instance, voters now have a wide variety of choices at the state and local levels, which arguably have more of a direct impact on their lives. However, it has also come at significant cost to progress at the national level.

Ruling parties now find themselves dependent on smaller parties to maintain their coalitions, and thus to stay in power. Accordingly, their focus has inevitably shifted from enacting broad-based reforms to managing intracoalition politics and rivalries. As a result, staying in power now takes more energy (and precedence) than actually wielding power, a deeply unfortunate circumstance.

This is not a theoretical construct -- we have seen this dependence starkly in the past. The first term of the current Congress-led government gives us an illustrative example. In July 2007, India and the United States jointly announced the conclusion of negotiations on a landmark bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement. All that remained to finalize the deal was for India to negotiate a separate agreement with the international body that governs nuclear trade, followed by some additional steps by the United States. Both sides were optimistic for a speedy conclusion.

But the end of this story is well known. Instead of moving forward expeditiously, Congress found itself at the mercy of the Communist bloc of parties, which vehemently opposed the nuclear deal. Having come to power in 2004 through the outside support of the Communists, Congress could ill-afford to antagonize them now and risk falling from power. (Ironically, Congress had already used its political goodwill with the Communists by pushing through economic reforms earlier in its term.) Thus began a political chess match in which Congress hunted for new coalition partners, while the Communists extracted as many concessions as possible to continue their support. With coalition partners like these, who needs enemies?

Only when scandal erupted almost a year later in West Bengal, where the Communists controlled the state government at the time, did Congress feel strong enough to force a confidence vote in Parliament and finally eject the Communists from its coalition. The nuclear deal eventually survived, but the confidence vote was a sorry spectacle. In the run-up, bags of cash openly changed hands on the floor of Parliament - the first of many accusations of corruption that eventually engulfed the Congress government. In the end, it is worth asking what brought about such a development -- the substance of the policy or the bane of coalition politics?

Returning to the current election, many predict that the Trinamool Congress (TMC), a regional party from eastern India, will be the third-largest party in the next Parliament, making TMC leader Mamata Banerjee a potential "kingmaker." As result, Banerjee is being courted by both Congress and the BJP, both of which she has supported, and abandoned, in the past. Given such a dynamic, should Modi come to power reliant on the TMC, Banerjee would wield disproportionate influence.

As the Communists were to Congress on nuclear issues, so the TMC could be to the BJP on economic ones. For example, the TMC's election manifesto states directly that it opposes the removal of agricultural subsidies, the introduction of foreign direct investment, and the establishment of special economic zones. All of these are structural reforms that the economic community is hoping Modi will push through. But inside a coalition, if Modi and Banerjee were to disagree on economic policy, is there any doubt which policy would eventually win out?

This is just one of many theoretical scenarios that could play out under a BJP-led government, but it highlights how Modi would not necessarily have the free rein that he and his supporters desire and proclaim. Even in victory, Modi will face a tricky balancing act and may not wish to upset things too much, especially early in his term.

All this is not meant to douse the BJP parade or the enthusiasm that Modi has brought to the Indian election. Having so many people talking positively about democratic elections and looking forward to a new government is an encouraging sign. But it seems prudent not to let exuberance and expectations get out of control. If he does assume power, Modi will have to deal with the same sort of coalition politics that have vexed Indian prime ministers for over two decades now -- a brand of politics that he has largely avoided while governing Gujarat.

At a moment like this, it is best to recall another Indian politician who rose to power with the mantle of an economic reformer -- someone who helped to usher in India's first round of economic restructuring to great effect nearly 25 years ago. But someone who, once in office, found himself unable to enact much-needed reforms. It wasn't that he lost his zeal or passion for economic growth, but more that he was subsumed by his unwieldy coalition. That politician? The onetime economic savior Dr. Manmohan Singh.

Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.

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