By: Jayant Muralidharan
The post-election power tussle going on in Maharashtra, between the top two winners – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena – who fought in the polls as alliance partners, has again brought to fore the inherent weaknesses of our parliamentary democracy. Shiv Sena says that the BJP had promised equal share in power in the matter of ministries and posts along with each party having its chief minister for 2.5 years. BJP has denied agreeing to any such formula. Nonetheless, what we have got is a deadlock thanks to our electoral system, which allows this level of opaqueness. Governance is held at ransom by post-poll shenanigans, which shouldn’t have been allowed to creep in, in the first place. The people voted for the BJP-Sena alliance to continue in power for the next five years with the former as the senior partner.
But now, the Sena – which came a distant second – is in a position to form the government on its own if the two losers – the Indian National Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – decide to screw the BJP and give outside support to the Sena. One can’t help but remember a hilarious anecdote shared by late Pramod Mahajan on the floor of the Parliament explaining our democracy to the Chinese. “I said, ‘I am Pramod Mahajan. I am a member of Lok Sabha. I belong to the single largest party… And I am in Opposition.’ The Chinese man was looking at me in a confused way. “Then I pointed at Chintaman Pani. ‘He belongs to the second-largest party (Congress)… He is outside the government, but supporting it.’ “And finally, I said, ‘He is Ramakhant Khalap. He is the only member of his party but he is in the GOVERNMENT!” For the past few years, we have seen people giving clear verdicts and fewer and fewer cases of hung assemblies, which means that the messy coalition politics and governance of the 1990s and 2000s has been forgotten – and important electoral reforms were put on the backburner. It’s not just Maharashtra.
In the Haryana election, we saw how the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP), which projected itself as an alternative to the BJP and campaigned on removing it from the power (It defeated BJP candidates on 8 seats, Congress on 2) conveniently joined the same BJP to form the government after the election. It’s bizarre that our electoral system goes bananas if someone sticks posters of their candidate on their own property but has no process in place to put a leash on post-poll backroom dealings. Why such pulling of wool over the voters’ eyes isn’t outlawed or, at the very least, prevented from happening by putting in place better mechanisms, is something we must ponder over urgently. The ideal solution is a slight shift towards a presidential form of the system, where legislative and executive branches are better separated. Elections to both these arms of the government should be separated. Instead of a radical change at all levels, we can allow states to experiment with the new model, where Chief Ministers are directly elected by the people, and there is separate vote to elect your local MLA.
All recognised parties at state level can field candidates for the CM post. This will force political parties to pivot towards better and popular candidates rather than installing puppets of the high commands. This would also consign to the dustbin the concept of a hung assembly. In fact, one party or a coalition could be in power in the assembly while another coalition or party in power in the executive. This would strengthen democracy in the real sense by giving more importance to the legislative agenda than it currently gets and also increasing the checks and balances on both branches. This new system would, of course, raise many questions that would need solving but the two critical ones are: what if no CM candidate is fielded by a party or a coalition reaches the halfway mark? If there is a hard separation of the legislative and executive functions, how will the ministers be appointed: will they be members of the assembly or not? First, rather than setting a halfway mark as the minimum criteria for winning the CM chair, we can opt for a popular vote. Whoever gets the maximum number of votes becomes the CM.
That’s the least complex solution where we would have many parties fielding candidates for the CM post and most of the times, it would be almost impossible to reach the 50 per cent vote share. Direct election of the CM shouldn’t spook anyone as we already have parties projecting CM faces in almost every election throughout the country. Regional parties even more so. Second, as far as the question of appointing ministers is concerned, we can avoid going the US way where ministers can’t be members of the legislative branch. We can set a minimum limit for ministers to be MLAs while the rest of the posts can go to non-members.
This would make room for popular CMs to hire technocrats too rather than merely party faithfuls. Of course, this is the ideal solution and would require substantial amendments to the Constitution. There are less radical ways too, which can be implemented with considerably less effort. For instance, why can’t political parties or coalitions is mandated to project their CM faces beforehand? It should be clear to voters who will be in charge. In the case of a coalition, the alliance can declare a deputy candidate too. Such a declaration should be upfront so that voters can make an informed choice. Even if there is to be 50-50 power-sharing between two parties, that should also be declared beforehand. Whatever be the condition/s, they must be submitted to the Election Commission in the form of a legal contract and let the voters decide, thereafter. Absolute transparency before the election is an idea we must strive for. There must be more and more legal proofing of post-poll backroom wheeling-dealing. This still doesn’t solve a Haryana-like situation where leading parties were fighting separately and not in an alliance.
If the BJP is at 40 seats, the Congress at 31 and JJP at 10, how do you form the government without legalising cheating a section of voters (as some JJP voters are feeling now)? This is the weakness of the parliamentary democracy where government stability depends on your strength in legislature. That’s why one favours the presidential style or a mixed form of both the systems. It doesn’t mean one form is better than the other. Both have their positives and drawbacks. As Thomas Sowell says, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs” meaning that a perfect solution doesn’t exist and one has to see which trade-off is less costly for you. The idea is to start a national debate on improving our electoral democracy where discretion and opaqueness give way to transparency. We have to analyse which system (or a mix of them) is better for us. The least we can do is allow for some room for states to experiment so that different democratic models can thrive in the same country. That’s the Indic way. INAV