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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The first casualty of a coalition cabinet is the principle of collective responsibility

Politics at close quarters C.T.KURIEN The Hindu Tuesday, May 01, 2007
The year 1989 marks the watershed in India's politics. In the first 41 years of independence till 1989, six prime ministers ruled the country of whom only three had tenures of less than five years. For the 18 years since 1989 there have been seven prime ministers and none of them had the backing of a party with majority in the Lok Sabha, and only two of them were able to complete a full term of five years. That is, multi-party coalitions have become the regular form of government with the instability that is almost built into it. For instance, the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 were contested by as many as 55 parties with only two parties winning more than 10 per cent (but less than one third) of the seats in the House. Of these two the one that had the slight edge and succeeded in bringing together a wide range of diverse elements to form a coalition, and managed to get the support of another group of parties, but without joining the coalition, thus, managed to demonstrate a precarious majority in the House and take over the reins of power. That such an arrangement has worked for three years may demonstrate the resilience of Indian democracy and parliamentary form of governance.
However, this has serious systemic implications, some of which, such as the proneness to instability may be obvious, but there are others that are not so visible, though more damaging. Establishing the interconnections of these latent threats to democracy and the interests of the vast majority of people is Jalan's major contribution in this book.
Coalitions, obviously, result from the proliferation of political parties. But they also provide incentives for parties to proliferate. For, in the fluid situation that prevails, especially after the elections lead to a fractured verdict, smaller parties with even single digit members come to have enormous bargaining power. Knowing this, enterprising "Nethas" in different parts of the country form parties prior to elections and manage to get a few of their followers into the House through any means that are expedient. Once this is done, cabinet posts are simply a matter of "negotiations".
The first casualty after the formation of such a coalition cabinet is the principle of collective responsibility. The primary concern of each group within the coalition is to protect its own interest. In the extreme, each cabinet minister becomes an independent master of his own ministry. The sense of collective responsibility gets reduced to maintaining majority in the House for survival. Even that may be sacrificed if survival is possible via another coalition!

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