September 25, 2020
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Coalition Blackmail

Vinod Mehta argues that the conclusion of the nuclear stand-off reflects the majority opinion in the country. Really? Let us do the math again. Coalition politics exaggerates the Left's influence, allowing a minority to bulldoze its way.

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Coalition Blackmail

I would like to disagree with the central claim of Mr Vinod Mehta's article, Democracy, Stupid!, in which he argues that the shelving of the nuclear deal represents a vindication of our democratic polity. While avoiding immediate elections may have its advantages, let us not forget that a bloc that is a minority -- not only in the parliament, but also in the government -- brought the country to the brink of elections. 

Indeed, if the Left's opposition to the deal truly reflected a majority view in the parliament, we must celebrate the discarding of the deal as a victory for democracy. However, if this is not the case, then we must reflect more critically on the outcome. Because of the fragmented nature of the party system, the figure of 75 percent of the parliament being against the agreement, quoted by Mr Mehta may hide more than it reveals. 

I would argue that two factors (1) compulsions of electoral politics for the opposition parties and (2) delayed benefits of the nuclear agreement for the voters have together allowed the Left's disproportionate power in a coalition government to scuttle a deal that may have actually enjoyed majority support in the parliament. 

Let us begin with re-examining the sums on the deal in the light of the track record of some of the parties currently opposing it: The Congress wants the deal, in principle as do the BJP (despite its convoluted formulations and public pronouncements) and some of its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners -- only, they would like to take full credit for it. Why will the NDA parties not break ranks to support the deal? Because they face the Congress in a head-to-head fight in the states. They stand to benefit from the failure of the Congress on this issue. 

Let us remember that they are no immediate gains for the voters from the nuclear agreement, as a result, there are also no immediate electoral costs incurred by the parties who oppose the deal. Any benefit to the voters in the form of improved energy supplies will take many years to appear. 

We also do not have a sense of who in domestic politics will be the winners and losers from this deal. At this time, the only gains or losses are in international politics, not in domestic politics. They are reputation-related and are for the party sponsoring the deal, and the country at large. 

Even at the expense of embarrassing its Prime minister, Congress has backed down in its stand-off with the Left because Sonia Gandhi knows that the Congress does not stand to increase its vote share substantially in the next election on the basis of the nuclear agreement. 

On their part, the BJP and its allies are banking on the following calculus: Despite their opposition to the deal, the NDA will escape blame, the Left will carry part of the blame for scuttling the deal, and the Congress will be vilified for its weakness in the face of coalition pressure. 

The NDA also hopes to benefit from reviving the deal in the future--after all, US-India relations formed the cornerstone of their foreign policy. In short, despite all their public posturing, the BJP and its allies are not opposed to the nuclear deal; they are opposed to the Congress party. They support the deal in principle, but will gain nothing by acting to save it. 

This, then, suggests two conditions that will have made the Left's veto less effective. First, if Congress was a major competitor of fewer parties in the parliament, and second, if the policy had an immediate and direct benefit for the voters. These conditions will have encouraged the opposition parties to break ranks on this issue. Not doing so could have resulted in electoral costs. 

We know that coalitions disproportionately empower small players. Absent the above conditions, despite being a minority in the parliament or even vis-à-vis  the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that it supports, coalition politics exaggerates the Left's influence by extending it the power to blackmail the government that it only supports from the outside. 

Let us return to the sums: Their late objections under the threat of elections notwithstanding, the other UPA partners like the RJD, the NCP, and the DMK are in favor of the deal, otherwise their members would not have supported it in the cabinet. This, then, suggests that a majority sentiment in the parliament, if not the overwhelming sentiment, could easily be in favor of the deal. 

Outside the Left, there is not much principled opposition to the agreement. If news reports coming out of West Bengal are to be believed, even inside the Left there exist divisions with some elements in favor of the deal. Moreover, the Left is comfortable with its ideological stance because it fears no electoral costs because of its opposition to the deal. 

So we are faced with a situation in which a proposal that could very well enjoy the support of the majority view in the parliament, will actually fail, allowing the minority view to prevail because of the compulsions of democracy, or, to be more precise, the compulsions of electoral politics. 

As a political system, democracy has many advantages over its rivals. To truly appreciate it, we must acknowledge its virtues as well as its problems. In many respects, there is no better example highlighting the virtues of democratic politics in the world today than India's historical experience with the system, nevertheless, by misrepresenting the problems that sometimes accompany it, which is what Mr Vinod Mehta's article does, we distort our understanding of democratic politics. 

Amit Ahuja is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Predoctoral Fellow at the Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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