Dr Pritam Baruah

If the regional forces want a space in India’s centralized electoral democracy, then they must bring their innovative DNA into coalition politics. Constitutional pre-commitment is a potential antidote to horse-trading that is the sad reality of government formation in India. It is also a vote gatherer as a picture of stability for coalitions.

Contrary to cultural stereotypes, the history of the people of Assam is a history of innovation. The ingenuous reclaiming of marshlands, the Paik system, and pragmatic alliances between communities transforming into sustained relationships laid the foundations of the community. Blending of indigenous beliefs, Tai-Ahom traditions, Vaishnavite Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and cultural practices yielded an enduring multi-cultural heritage. Despite ethnic strife, Assam continues as an exemplar of multicultural life in India. This innovative Assamese trait of pragmatically and rationally responding to challenges needs marshalling to thrive in Indian electoral politics.

The fresh regional upsurge in Assam today faces a twin political challenge: seat-sharing pre-elections, and government formation post elections. These are familiar but beleaguering challenges. Ordinarily, seat-sharing precedes government formation and thus is thought to be more pressing. But it is government formation that is the end game. A view of the end game can wisely inform other strategies, including seat-sharing. It is a grandma’s tale in coalition politics that coalitions may agree on seat-sharing and win elections but fail to form government. This is especially true when a powerful opponent with superior financial and coercive power can divide coalitions easily. Is there a strategy apart from interest gratification that can prevent coalition splitting? Are there principles that coalition members can agree to, before elections, for government formation?

Having a picture of a pre-electoral commitment for government formation has several benefits. First, it gives voters the impression that the coalition is confident and stable as it is far-sighted. This addresses the primary fear related to coalitions: that they will collapse soon and put the state in a political crisis, a vote-losing logic. This is often the fear that strong parties stoke in the minds of voters. Ram Vilas Paswan’s mid-90s cry of able government and not stable government is but a half-truth. Voters want both able and stable government. Stability is important as then one can forget about elections for five years and get on with life.

Second, a principle of government formation will form the background against which negotiations will take place post-election. A coalition will not be rudderless. It is an antidote to purely selfish interests taking over discussions about government formation. The effect a principle has is primarily psychological. Coalition partners will feel bound by their previous commitment. They also know that their electorate is watching. Those who breakaway lose legitimacy, as they appear to have no fidelity to a specific promise. Ordinarily, the election manifesto is the only such public pre-election commitment. But unlike a manifesto that is idealistic, a government formation principle is practical and simple. Such a public commitment has more chance of being obeyed. You can fool people on ideals, but not on specific principles about the highest stake involved.

The third benefit of a principle is that it can tackle the question: Who is your CM candidate? Single leader-dominated parties such as the BJP answer the question in two ways: X is our CM candidate who is subservient to the PM. They have two personalities to rely on. They profit from the certainty of leadership. Coalitions cannot do that having multiple leaders. They can however say: we have a neutral, rational, democratic, and specific principle that will ensure that the most popular leaders will lead the government. But what is such a principle?

The answer lies in the idea of ‘constitutional pre-commitment’: just as all governments in India are bound by the Constitution, a coalition politics will in addition be bound by a government formation pre-commitment. The pre-commitment along with the manifesto is constitutional in nature – the grammar of politics – that the coalition will speak. It will be their basic terms of agreement. In addition to the manifesto, it will lay out the basis of the coalition.

The specific principle stemming from constitutional pre-commitment is a kind of ‘blinded equity’. It requires preparing two independent lists. The first is a pre-election ‘list of posts’ that lists all the posts in government in an order of priority: 1) CM; 2) Home; 3) Finance, etc. The second post-election ‘list of parties’ will rank the coalition partners in the order of vote share. The party with the highest vote-share will have post 1 or a group of posts, say group 1 consisting of posts 1-3. The second largest vote-share will get you post 2 or group 2 and so forth. Complications can be solved by cyclical appointments: the cycle changes according to the number of parties. If there are 4 parties, then the cycle is repeated after every 4 posts or group of posts. The lists only need to have the most important posts. Once the leaders of the parties are slotted in the most important positions, the other posts will self-determine through internal discussions.

The virtues of this arrangement are that first, it is fair because it is unbiased and goes by the democratic principle. Greater number of votes (performance) will get you the higher ministries. Second, it is binding because parties will be held accountable for their own word, nothing else. Third, it leverages time because interest-based government formation negotiations can only be pre-empted by a principle that is agreed to in advance. Left to a later time, horse-trading and selfish bargaining will become the rule. Fourth, exceptions are possible because specific persons can be unanimously declared as CM candidate, etc. What is inviolable is that the coalition will not violate their constitutional pre-commitment. Number of seats won should not figure in the arrangement as coalition parties may have given up seats for various pragmatic reasons. The seat-sharing logic will be distinct from the government formation logic.

If the regional forces want a space in India’s centralized electoral democracy, then they must bring their innovative DNA into coalition politics. Constitutional pre-commitment is a potential antidote to horse-trading that is the sad reality of government formation in India. It is also a vote gatherer as a picture of stability for coalitions.