This is the age of the political freelancer. Parties across the country are abandoning the constraining comfort of coalition discipline for free-floating, shifting and temporary alliances. The political manoeuvring around the presidential election makes this particularly clear. In the past, it might have been a straightforward contest between clear-cut alliances: one led by the Congress, one led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), perhaps with a candidate backed by the Left parties thrown into the mix. This presidential election, however, has seen the candidates split the coalitions wide open. Pranab Mukherjee is the Congress’ candidate, but it is quite clear that some of its coalition partners are not on board. On the other hand, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is unable to oppose Mr Mukherjee’s candidature as a unit, with the Shiv Sena, for example, making its support for his presidential run apparent. Meanwhile, the main alternative to Mr Mukherjee, Purno A Sangma, was till recently a member of the United Progressive Alliance himself; his daughter, Agatha Sangma, is still a member of the UPA council of ministers. The Nationalist Congress Party also appears to be divided internally, and geographically, over Mr Sangma’s candidacy.
In effect, India’s political development is at a stage when alliances are particularly fluid, as small parties with little policy coherence or consistency joust for advantage and concessions from those with the power to grant them. The biggest testament is the very existence of UPA-II, which by itself does not command a formal majority but can count on the outside support of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party — partly in return, it is believed, for considerations related to centrally supervised investigations of criminal cases against their leaders. Meanwhile, those very parties fought a bitter election against the Congress in their home state of Uttar Pradesh. The presence of regional parties that can switch sides at will is not new, true; but the new fuzziness imbued in the notion of “sides” is indeed novel. The new weakness of coalitions comes at about the same time as parties themselves continue to be strong and almost excessively unitary and top-down in operation.
This peculiar combination – of weak coalitions and strong, small parties – is artificial. It is one unintended consequence, among many, of the misguided anti-defection law, now almost three decades old. That law, meant to curb what was seen as blatant favour-seeking among individual politicians in return for their support, has had the effect of simply shifting such behaviour upwards towards the leadership of their parties. Who would choose to lead a powerful faction in a national party – when the anti-defection law essentially renders it powerless – instead of setting up a regional party that can conduct ongoing bargains for protection and advantage? If India’s politics is developing the appearance of excessive incoherence and lack of principle, a large part of the reason is the removal of the right of an individual MP or MLA to vote as she sees fit — occasionally against the interest of her own party. If the re-establishment of diverse parties that serve as the location for policy discussions is a priority, the anti-defection law must be revisited. MPs and MLAs should be allowed to vote freely, unless the collapse of a government is at stake.