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India Is Set to Return to Coalition Politics: What Does That Mean?

India has had several coalition governments between 1977 and April 2014.  

Updated
Explainers
6 min read
It is not hard to rule out that India might be heading for a coalition government – again.
i
Snapshot

Three key events took place in January 2019. First, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal announced the formation of a Mahagathbandhan to take on the Narendra Modi-led BJP in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh.

Second, several anti-BJP parties led by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee came together for a mega rally in Kolkata’s sprawling Brigade Parade Ground. Third, two opinion polls – one by ABP News and C-Voter and the other by India Today and Karvy – predicted that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is falling well short of a majority in the Lok Sabha elections.

These events have opened up a conversation about the possibility of a non-BJP formation getting a majority.

Even though the BJP has mocked the possibility of a Mahagathbandhan forming the government, the results are yet to be seen. And it’s hard to rule out that India could be heading towards a coalition government – again.

To understand the political situation and scope of a coalition better, here’s what you need to know about their formation, functioning and history in India.

India Is Set to Return to Coalition Politics: What Does That Mean?

  1. 1. What Is a Coalition and How Is It Formed?

    A coalition is formed when multiple political parties cooperate, join forces and come together (which can happen prior or post-elections) which reduces the dominance or power of any single political party. A coalition is usually formed:

    • When no single political party is able to secure a working majority in the Parliament
    • There is possibility for a deadlock to be created when two parties are even, in such a situation one of the parties would need an ally to gain majority
    Expand
  2. 2. Have There Been Any Coalition Govts in India?

    India has had several coalition governments between 1977 and April 2014.

    • Morarji Desai for 857 days (between March 1977 and June 1979): These were the first elections held after the National Emergency. The Janata Party won these elections and Morarji Desai took charge as the prime minister and formed the first non-Congress government. However, the Janata Party was an amalgamation of several parties and the government fell in 1979 when several parties in the Janata alliance pulled out, forcing Desai to step down.
    • Charan Singh for 171 days (between July 1979 and January 1980): As Morarji Desai’s government collapsed, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) leader Charan Singh (who was a part of the Janata Party) took charge as the prime minister. However, the government fell after Singh couldn’t prove majority in the Parliament and fresh elections were declared.
    • VP Singh for 344 days (between December 1989 and Novem­ber 1990): In the 1989 elections, the Janata Dal formed the National Front government with the external support of the BJP and Left parties. VP Singh became the prime minister, but had to step down after Chandra Shekhar broke away from the party.
    • Chandra Shekhar for 224 days (between November 1990 and June 1991): In 1990, Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister with the external support of Congress. Even this experiment lasted only for a short while, forcing general elections in less than a year.
    • AB Vajpayee for 13 days in May 1996: The BJP’s strength grew in the elections held in 1996 as the Congress came into elections facing allegations of corruption. The BJP won 161 seats, Congress' tally stood at 140, and the Janata Dal won 46 seats. The regional parties won 129 seats. As per the norm, the BJP was invited to form the government. Vajpayee attempted to form a coalition but the government lasted for 13 days – and Vajpayee stepped down ahead of the trust vote.
    • Deve Gowda for 325 days (between June 1996 and April 1997): As the Vajpayee government collapsed, Deve Gowda became the prime minister with the support of regional parties and Congress from outside. However, the Congress decided to withdraw support and Deve Gowda’s government collapsed in 11 months.
    • IK Gujral for 333 days (between April 1997 and March 1998): Deve Gowda’s resignation made way for IK Gujral, who became the prime minister. The Congress was once again supporting this United Front government but as they pulled support, the government collapsed.
    • AB Vajpayee for 394 days (between March 1998 and April 1999): In 1998 elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 182 seats of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The BJP formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with regional parties and formed the government. AB Vajpayee once again was sworn in as the prime minister. But the government fell in 13 months after AIADMK withdrew support from NDA.
    • AB Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004: In 1999, the BJP won 182 seats of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The regional parties won 158 seats and the Congress won 114 seats. However, the BJP was able to form a stable alliance which lasted for a full five-year term.
    • Manmohan Singh (UPA I - 2004 to 2009): The Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2004 and won 145 seats, while the BJP won 138 seats. The Congress then went on to form the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) with the support of regional parties and outside support of Left parties, under Manmohan Singh's leadership.
    • Manmohan Singh (UPA II - 2009 to 2014): As the elections were held in 2009, the UPA came back to power. The Congress also improved its tally from 145 to 206 seats, while the BJP could only win 116 seats. Manmohan Singh was elected as the prime minister for a second term.

    The Narendra Modi government, which has been in power since 2014, is also a coalition government since the BJP’s alliance partners are also part of the government. But the BJP won 282 seats in the 2014 elections and was above the half-way mark on its own.

    Expand
  3. 3. Has a Coalition Ever Served an Entire Term?

    Yes, coalition governments have served a full term with Manmohan Singh’s UPA being the last one to have completed two terms in office – but there have been other coalition governments which proved to be unstable and couldn’t last their full term.

    The critics are divided over stability and performance of a coalition government. According to a report in Livemint, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has suggested that coalition governments generate more inclusive policies because a coalition represents wider group of political parties.

    However, another political scientist, Irfan Nooruddin, has suggested in his book Coalition Politics and Economic Development that coalitions create constraints as a government can’t change policies “suddenly and arbitrarily”.

    Moreover, an analysis by Livemint has shown that coalition governments don’t harm the economic performance in India or any other country.

    Expand
  4. 4. Are Coalition Governments Good or Bad for the Country?

    Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a dig at the Mahagathbandhan and said that the people of India should decide if they want a majboot (strong) or a majboor (weak) government.

    He was seemingly referring to the likely coalition that could form post 2019 elections in the absence of a majority for any party.

    However, not every coalition government has been a weak government.

    Implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, giving job quota to other backward classes, the decision to conduct nuclear tests at Pokhran, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act are some examples of bold moves taken by coalition governments.

    Because of the ambiguity around the efficacy of coalition governments, the partners tend to be on the edge about its government’s stability. The lack of clear power and control of the majority makes the smaller parties more confident in their rebellion, therefore leading to multiple No Confidence motions and an easier dissolution of the government.

    Expand
  5. 5. What If a Coalition Govt is Formed After 2019 Elections?

    According to the latest poll conducted by Karvy Insights and India Today, the BJP is likely to win 30 percent votes in the 2019 elections, and secure 245 seats, 27 short of a parliamentary majority, reported Livemint.

    At an event, Modi addressed the idea of coalition governments and made his views clear.

    “For 20 years, there was instability. There was no majority government. There used to be alliance governments. The growth of the country had come to a halt. But now we are progressing,” he said, as quoted by Hindustan Times.

    Since there is much conjecture about the possibility of a coalition government, experts are also speculating about what its impact could be. Like Modi, many people are under the impression that a coalition means an unstable government and therefore, an unstable economy. But past experiences suggest that some coalition governments took key decisions that have contributed to India’s progress.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is a Coalition and How Is It Formed?

A coalition is formed when multiple political parties cooperate, join forces and come together (which can happen prior or post-elections) which reduces the dominance or power of any single political party. A coalition is usually formed:

  • When no single political party is able to secure a working majority in the Parliament
  • There is possibility for a deadlock to be created when two parties are even, in such a situation one of the parties would need an ally to gain majority
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Have There Been Any Coalition Govts in India?

India has had several coalition governments between 1977 and April 2014.

  • Morarji Desai for 857 days (between March 1977 and June 1979): These were the first elections held after the National Emergency. The Janata Party won these elections and Morarji Desai took charge as the prime minister and formed the first non-Congress government. However, the Janata Party was an amalgamation of several parties and the government fell in 1979 when several parties in the Janata alliance pulled out, forcing Desai to step down.
  • Charan Singh for 171 days (between July 1979 and January 1980): As Morarji Desai’s government collapsed, Bharatiya Lok Dal (BLD) leader Charan Singh (who was a part of the Janata Party) took charge as the prime minister. However, the government fell after Singh couldn’t prove majority in the Parliament and fresh elections were declared.
  • VP Singh for 344 days (between December 1989 and Novem­ber 1990): In the 1989 elections, the Janata Dal formed the National Front government with the external support of the BJP and Left parties. VP Singh became the prime minister, but had to step down after Chandra Shekhar broke away from the party.
  • Chandra Shekhar for 224 days (between November 1990 and June 1991): In 1990, Chandra Shekhar became the prime minister with the external support of Congress. Even this experiment lasted only for a short while, forcing general elections in less than a year.
  • AB Vajpayee for 13 days in May 1996: The BJP’s strength grew in the elections held in 1996 as the Congress came into elections facing allegations of corruption. The BJP won 161 seats, Congress' tally stood at 140, and the Janata Dal won 46 seats. The regional parties won 129 seats. As per the norm, the BJP was invited to form the government. Vajpayee attempted to form a coalition but the government lasted for 13 days – and Vajpayee stepped down ahead of the trust vote.
  • Deve Gowda for 325 days (between June 1996 and April 1997): As the Vajpayee government collapsed, Deve Gowda became the prime minister with the support of regional parties and Congress from outside. However, the Congress decided to withdraw support and Deve Gowda’s government collapsed in 11 months.
  • IK Gujral for 333 days (between April 1997 and March 1998): Deve Gowda’s resignation made way for IK Gujral, who became the prime minister. The Congress was once again supporting this United Front government but as they pulled support, the government collapsed.
  • AB Vajpayee for 394 days (between March 1998 and April 1999): In 1998 elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 182 seats of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The BJP formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with regional parties and formed the government. AB Vajpayee once again was sworn in as the prime minister. But the government fell in 13 months after AIADMK withdrew support from NDA.
  • AB Vajpayee from 1999 to 2004: In 1999, the BJP won 182 seats of the 543 seats in Lok Sabha. The regional parties won 158 seats and the Congress won 114 seats. However, the BJP was able to form a stable alliance which lasted for a full five-year term.
  • Manmohan Singh (UPA I - 2004 to 2009): The Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2004 and won 145 seats, while the BJP won 138 seats. The Congress then went on to form the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) with the support of regional parties and outside support of Left parties, under Manmohan Singh's leadership.
  • Manmohan Singh (UPA II - 2009 to 2014): As the elections were held in 2009, the UPA came back to power. The Congress also improved its tally from 145 to 206 seats, while the BJP could only win 116 seats. Manmohan Singh was elected as the prime minister for a second term.

The Narendra Modi government, which has been in power since 2014, is also a coalition government since the BJP’s alliance partners are also part of the government. But the BJP won 282 seats in the 2014 elections and was above the half-way mark on its own.

Has a Coalition Ever Served an Entire Term?

Yes, coalition governments have served a full term with Manmohan Singh’s UPA being the last one to have completed two terms in office – but there have been other coalition governments which proved to be unstable and couldn’t last their full term.

The critics are divided over stability and performance of a coalition government. According to a report in Livemint, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has suggested that coalition governments generate more inclusive policies because a coalition represents wider group of political parties.

However, another political scientist, Irfan Nooruddin, has suggested in his book Coalition Politics and Economic Development that coalitions create constraints as a government can’t change policies “suddenly and arbitrarily”.

Moreover, an analysis by Livemint has shown that coalition governments don’t harm the economic performance in India or any other country.

ADVERTISEMENT

Are Coalition Governments Good or Bad for the Country?

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a dig at the Mahagathbandhan and said that the people of India should decide if they want a majboot (strong) or a majboor (weak) government.

He was seemingly referring to the likely coalition that could form post 2019 elections in the absence of a majority for any party.

However, not every coalition government has been a weak government.

Implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, giving job quota to other backward classes, the decision to conduct nuclear tests at Pokhran, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act are some examples of bold moves taken by coalition governments.

Because of the ambiguity around the efficacy of coalition governments, the partners tend to be on the edge about its government’s stability. The lack of clear power and control of the majority makes the smaller parties more confident in their rebellion, therefore leading to multiple No Confidence motions and an easier dissolution of the government.

What If a Coalition Govt is Formed After 2019 Elections?

According to the latest poll conducted by Karvy Insights and India Today, the BJP is likely to win 30 percent votes in the 2019 elections, and secure 245 seats, 27 short of a parliamentary majority, reported Livemint.

At an event, Modi addressed the idea of coalition governments and made his views clear.

“For 20 years, there was instability. There was no majority government. There used to be alliance governments. The growth of the country had come to a halt. But now we are progressing,” he said, as quoted by Hindustan Times.

Since there is much conjecture about the possibility of a coalition government, experts are also speculating about what its impact could be. Like Modi, many people are under the impression that a coalition means an unstable government and therefore, an unstable economy. But past experiences suggest that some coalition governments took key decisions that have contributed to India’s progress.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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