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Lessons from J&K impasse: Leaders of house groups must decide about coalitions, not party bosses

Jammu and Kashmir Governor NN Vohra’s invitation to the state party chiefs of PDP and BJP has raised a piquant question over constitutional processes for forming a coalition government. He would have been well advised to invite the legislative party leader of at least the BJP – and perhaps the deputy leader of the PDP in the assembly.

Of course, calling on party presidents to tell the head of state how MLAs (or MPs) will vote candidly acknowledges the realities of how power is exercised in our democracy; almost every party is a dictatorial fief. On the other hand, formally turning to party presidents reinforces these skewed systems. India does not have a list system of elections. The constitution conceives of each assembly and Parliament member as representing the people of a constituency rather than a party.

NN Vohra. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

NN Vohra. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

That is in fact the only sensible way to practice democracy in such an extraordinarily diverse country. Not only are there thousands of linguistic, caste and other sorts of ethnic groups across India, many of these are concentrated in particular pockets, making representation of each constituency’s ethnic particularities very important.

This diversity is greater in Jammu and Kashmir than almost anywhere else in the world. The problems, aspirations and frustrations that the MLA for Kargil represents are a world apart from those which Kathua’s MLA represents. In fact, Kargil’s needs are different to those of nearby Leh, or even of adjacent Zanskar. Gurez, Karnah, Uri, Mendhar, Kishtwar and Bhaderwah are examples of relatively isolated places with distinct ethnic, geographical and economic features.

A party tends to reflect the political priorities of its central authorities. The wing of the party in the legislature must consider different priorities, even if only to be able to enforce its writ on members when they are called on to vote according to the party’s instructions in the house.

A governor must take into account the fact that, to begin with, the constitution does not acknowledge political parties. The Election Commission does, and gives candidates of a party a common election symbol. The Commission also accounts for electoral expenses incurred by a party while limiting a candidate’s expenses.

The power of the political party was slipped into the Constitution through the Tenth Schedule, which allowed a party to unseat an MP who defied the party line during a vote – unless at least a third of the legislature party voted in concert to split the legislature party. It was one of the anti-democratic steps Rajiv Gandhi’s advisers such as P Chidambaram pushed when their government was insecure in the late 1980s.

Bad precedent

It was President KR Narayanan who first gave party bosses outside the house formal power in government formation. Before he accepted Atal Behari Vajpayee’s claim to be prime minister in 1998, he asked the heads of political parties for letters vouchsafing that their MPs would back the National Democratic Alliance coalition for the full term of the house.

He thus empowered persons like J Jayalalithaa, who had never been MPs, and Bal Thackeray, who had never been elected to any house, to formally decide how MPs representing various constituencies would vote. The political and constitutional frailty of that bureaucratic demand for letters from party bosses was demonstrated a year later, when Jayalalithaa had tea with Sonia Gandhi. That paved the way for the fall of the Vajpayee government and fresh general elections in 1999.

President R Venkataraman had adopted a far more statesman-like approach in 1991. When PV Narasimha Rao, the new leader of the Congress Legislature Party, went to meet him, the President greeted him warmly and handed him a letter appointing him as the prime minister.

For the next year-and-a-half, Rao’s government continued with the open support of only 226 members in a house of 544 (well short of a majority on paper). But President Venkataraman had correctly assessed the chemistry across the political spectrum that gave Rao the constitutionally required `support of the house.’

Whenever a budgetary vote came up, over which the government could fall, the Left members walked out to protest something in the bill. The BJP walked out before each vote on a motion of thanks to the President – another bill over which the government could fall. It was only after the destruction of the Babri mosque that the Congress was forced to buy the support of some MPs in 1993.

Governor Vohra chose not to follow Venkataraman’s precedent last year. He could have appointed Mufti Sayeed, leaving it to the latter to choose between the publicly declared support of the National Conference or reach an agreement with the BJP.

His invitation to the state party chiefs today is less objectionable than President Narayanan’s decision in 1988. The BJP state president is a member of the assembly, and PDP President Mehbooba Mufti is an MP. Plus, a meeting of the party legislators on Monday authorized her to speak for them. A broad spectrum of party’s leaders had already authorised her on Sunday to take decisions.

That she was authorised by party MLAs is an encouraging sign. For, decisions regarding the house must be taken by those directly elected by members of the house. No doubt she has learnt the concepts behind the design of the constitution well. Her late father, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, had deeply imbibed the basic concepts of democracy.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2016 16:36 PM

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