Time to take off blinkers with regard to regional parties and coalition governments

Tridivesh Singh Maini

One often hears commentators in the media, and spokesmen from both the national parties arguing that a third front coalition government led by a regional satrap would not only be unstable, but also an absolute disaster in the context of policy making.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leaves no stone unturned in attacking the Congress for causing serious damage to India’s federal structure, apart from claiming to have better ties with regional parties, has also been expressing this view of late. Perhaps it senses that this would be a good way of mustering up support from a significant section of swing voters.

While there is not an iota of doubt that the country needs stability and sound leadership and there is no argument over the fact that some of the regional satraps have done no favours to their personal reputation, nor to the rise of regional parties, with their continuous tantrums and obstructionist approach on issues of both economic and foreign policy, yet it would be unfair to paint all regional leaders and parties with the same brush.

If one were to examine the argument of regional leaders lacking the clarity and vision as national leaders, this is a one sided view.

Firstly, some of the regional satraps have proven themselves to be excellent administrators who have facilitated economic growth. In fact the India story – if it still exists – is not because of New Delhi, but because of states clocking high economic growth rates. Many of these states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha were economic laggards until the reigns were taken over by good administrators such as Nitish Kumar, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Naveen Patnaik.

Second, if one were to go back to the past, it was leader like Chandrababu Naidu, as CM of Andhra Pradesh, and SM Krishna, as CM of Karnataka, who played a pivotal role not only in the information technology revolution which put India on the world map, but also in reaching out to the outside world, especially the US. This was long before Gujarat CM and BJP strongman Narendra Modi started the annual Vibrant Gujarat summit.

Now, if one were to look purely at coalition governments, not headed by national parties, while two of them, 1989-1990 and 1990-1991, did not perform particularly well, the ones led by Deve Gowda and IK Gujral may not have been outstanding, but they were certainly not a disaster as is often portrayed. In fact, inspite of all the contradictions they performed reasonably well.

Both governments carried on successfully with economic reforms, with current Finance Minister P Chidambaram presenting two pro-reform Budgets. Some would argue that both Gowda and Gujral gave more of a free hand to Chidambaram to reform than the current UPA dispensation.

In the realm of foreign policy too some decisive steps were taken. In fact, it would be pertinent to mention that important strides in the neighbourhood policy were made during both these governments. Gujral, first as external affairs minister in the Deve Gowda government and then as PM, carved out an accommodative, yet pragmatic policy, which did not harp on mutual reciprocity. While some argue that the policy was utopian, it is largely due to this policy and Gujral’s efforts that some successes were achieved, most notably the Ganges water sharing treaty which was signed with Bangladesh in 1996. Similarly, constructive dialogue with Pakistan began during Gujral’s tenure as prime minister. In fact, it should be mentioned here that before Gujral there was no structured policy towards the neighbourhood.

In conclusion, it should be stated that while a stable and progressive government is the need of the hour, the last three years of UPA-2 have clearly shown there is no guarantee that a coalition headed by a national party will provide stability and economic progress. While a disparate coalition consisting of regional satraps may not inspire much confidence, a coalition headed by the BJP or Congress may not perform much better, if the leadership is bereft of political will and a backbone.

(The author is a New Delhi-based columnist and policy analyst.)