At a famous Congress off-site meeting some years ago, an equally famous leader of India's oldest political party had proclaimed, again famously, that the party was yet to acquire the mindset necessary for running a coalition government. Indeed, that view led to the rejection of the Congress plan to woo smaller regional parties and obtain their support to form a government at the Centre. That was some time before 2004. The situation changed later, with the Congress leadership deciding that it should give forming a coalition government at the Centre a serious try.
That serious attempt, which went against the conventional wisdom in the party's top think tank, has yielded mixed results over the last few years and it would be instructive to assess how the new experiment has worked. In the first five years of the Congress experiment with a coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, had a smooth run, thanks to the presence of a common minimum programme, a document that committed the Congress to adhere to the goals set out therein.
If UPA-I faced any problem in running its coalition government between 2004 and 2009, it was largely because the Congress leadership tried to deviate from the principles and policies outlined in the common minimum programme. Indeed, the first big problem UPA-I faced was with regard to the sale of shares in public sector units. The Left parties opposed the idea, citing a specific clause in the common minimum programme, though it could be interpreted differently - as was indeed done by the Congress leadership during their consultation with the Left parties.
Eventually, the Congress made a tactical compromise in line with the so-called spirit of a coalition government. The Left was not part of the government, but gave crucial support to it from outside and the Congress did its best to honour that deal. But the second time the Left parties upped the ante, when Manmohan Singh was keen to pursue the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, the Congress approach had changed somewhat. The Congress decided to junk the Left and negotiated a deal with other regional parties that clinched the issue for it in Parliament. What that showed was a firm Congress going ahead with the Indo-US deal and the party making its political calculations in advance, anticipating the Left's move.
In UPA-II, which started its innings in 2009, the Congress did not have the benefit of a common minimum programme. The Left parties were not there to provide support to the government from outside. The Congress had managed to secure a larger number of seats in the Lok Sabha and had obtained the support of regional allies like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), though from outside.
However, governance suffered hugely - not just because of a policy paralysis largely induced by a flurry of corruption charges against the government and its ministers, but also because a key coalition partner, the Trinamool Congress, decided to assert itself. In the winter of 2011, it even succeeded in forcing the government to roll back the decision to allow 51 per cent foreign direct investment, or FDI, in multi-brand retail and threatened to oppose reforms in the pension and insurance sectors.
This only prolonged UPA-II's agony till it decided to drop the Trinamool Congress as a coalition partner and woo parties like the BSP and the SP for their support to get its policies approved. The developments in the last few weeks show the distance the Congress leadership has covered in its approach to running a coalition government.
Note the key difference between what happened in 2008 and now, when the retail FDI controversy surfaced. In 2008, when the Congress tried to secure support from the Left for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, the attempt appeared a little half-hearted and observers often wondered if the Congress party and the Manmohan Singh-led government were in full agreement with each other on this issue. It was only Manmohan Singh's dogged pursuit of the deal that left the Congress with no option other than securing a political understanding with regional parties to save the government.
In 2012, there was no such apparent divide between the Congress and the Manmohan Singh government. The idea of FDI in retail seemed to have received the endorsement of all sections within the party and those who did not favour the idea chose not to make them public. A new parliamentary affairs minister, Kamal Nath, worked wonders by negotiating deals with the BSP and the SP in a way that the FDI battle in Parliament was won with relative ease. Whether that really paved the way for more foreign investment in retail or subjected the government to greater pressure is still a debatable issue. But what has become clear is that the Congress is now willing to work hard on keeping its coalition intact, and even secure a more broad-based support in the event of a challenge from sections of the Opposition.
For a party that was known as the most unreliable supporter of a coalition government at the Centre (it was responsible for pulling down at least two coalition governments after having given them outside support), this is a significant change. The Congress is now willing to see itself as a party that would like to work towards preserving and safeguarding its coalition government. The economic crisis in 2012 may have played a role in forcing the Congress to come to the aid of the Manmohan Singh government's agenda for reforms to revive the economy for higher growth, which then could give them some resources for funding its electorally popular entitlement programmes for the poor. But the change in the Congress' approach to alliance politics is also a sign as much of its growing recognition of the rise of regional forces as of the country's evolving polity.