Coalitions and consequences: learnership and leadership in India, 1948–2008

Author name: 
Robin Jeffrey

This essay attempts to explore a missing aspect of the large literature that has grown up around coalition governments in India and then to include that aspect in a discussion of the consequences of coalition governments. Are they good or bad for economic development, social change and honest, effective government? Do they work better at the state level rather than the national? The missing aspect is the ‘educational process’ by which Indian politicians have learned the benefits and requirements of coalition governments and then how to make them work. I argue that such a process began in the state of Kerala, took nearly a generation to ‘learn’ and partly depended on the availability (and talents) of individual leaders. The same educational process that fostered understanding of the rewards that coalitions can bring also sensitised politicians to the need to deliver goods to their constituents. This need to satisfy voters leads to consideration of questions about the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of coalitions. In arguing that the educational process has been overlooked in study of coalitions in India, I am not discounting other aspects. I would particularly acknowledge the fragmentation of Indian politics as sub-regions and previously marginal and illiterate groups have produced people who understand the political system and are able to work effectively within it. Potent local political parties emerge and it becomes difficult to create a powerful state-wide party, much less a powerful national party.

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