India's lack of governance has become a subject of growing concern. All branches of government -- executive, legislature and judiciary -- are visibly tottering. The cause of weak governance is obvious. India's political system rests upon the existence of vibrant political parties. And a sub continental, multilingual, multi-ethnic nation requires vibrant national parties. We have none.
We do have parties that qualify the Election Commission's criteria to be called national. In real terms that means little. Out of a total 36 units --29 states and 7 Union Territories -- the Congress directly governs seven. It shares power in ruling coalitions of another three units. It extends outside support to one state government. In all it exercises power or influence in eleven units. The second largest so-called national party is the BJP. It also directly governs seven units. It shares power in ruling coalitions of five units. In all it exercises power or influence in twelve units. Therefore both the Congress and BJP have significant presence in just one-third of India. In what manner are these two parties genuinely national?
India's polity was not always fragmented. Of the 14 parliaments elected since Independence India had single party rule in the first ten except for a very short interruption of six months. Congress governed in all these ten parliaments except one when the Janata Party after the Emergency won the election in 1977. Contrary to popular misconception the Janata Party was not a coalition but a single party operating under a common symbol. It comprised several opposition parties and a breakaway section of the Congress. It fell apart because the leaders of both the government and the party organization were ex-Congressmen. They failed to empathize with partners rooted in former opposition parties. After the Janata Party split there was a brief coalition government comprising the Lok Dal and a breakaway section of the Congress led by YB Chavan. That coalition government fell after six months without ever facing parliament. The Congress returned to power. There was therefore virtual single party government at the centre until 1989.
The Congress survived as the sole national party for so long because it was invested with the aura of having won freedom. One need not go into the merits or otherwise of that reputation. Once the Congress entered the era of coalition politics it never regained its single party authority. Going by the record, it never will. Going by current trends India's political fragmentation will continue to grow. In the first coalition government at the centre led by VP Singh there were 18 parties in parliament. Three general elections later today there are 38 parties in parliament. After the next general election there will very likely be more parties in parliament. It is most unlikely that a single party will ever govern India at the centre again unless there is a fundamental change of approach. That is why the executive will continue to weaken and governance will continue to decline. How might this be halted?
One obvious remedy reiterated in these columns is of course to interpret the Constitution as written and allow the President to exercise certain legitimate powers that remain only on paper. That requires guts and vision not even remotely visible in our national leaders. There is however another remedy within the existing political framework.
Consider why a national party cannot emerge at present. A national party capable of governing the nation as a single party requires over fifty percent of parliamentary seats. Current electoral realities preclude that. MPs in order to win must depend on mostly local and regional issues. During elections the poll agendas of the so-called national parties are reduced to worthless scraps of paper. Regional parties have a field day and run away with the spoils. That is why caste, religion, language and ethnicity continue to grow in India. There is no effective platform that renders a national vision relevant for electoral victory. That is why squabbling coalition governments are created devoid of cohesion, purpose and discipline. The executive vainly attempts to govern while it is pulled and pushed by coalition partners willing to threaten and blackmail for every ounce of additional share of the spoils.
There is a simple remedy for reducing such unhealthy pressures. Today there are two main coalitions competing for power, the UPA and the NDA. The UPA has eleven partners and the NDA has twelve. Both coalitions have merely to transform themselves into federations to end the rot. This can be done quite simply by all coalition parties agreeing to contest for parliament under a single federation symbol without sacrificing their present party symbols. Under own symbols parties may contest only state assemblies. The candidates for parliament may be determined by each party for its respective quota. The elected MPs would become members of the single federation active in parliament. The anti-defection law would curtail blackmail by MPs and instability of the government. This solution is not ideal. But would it not go considerable way towards restoring executive authority for better governance?