Stability? No, Thank You

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Watching the results of India's general election trickle in on CNN and the BBC, I saw the usual suspects--political scientists, think-tankers, stock-market analysts--spout their usual bromides. Once it became clear that no single party would get a clear majority, the experts all went into deep-sigh mode. An era of coalition governments is upon us, the sages said, shaking their heads, stating what has been obvious for nearly a decade. That the new coalition is somewhat stronger than its predecessor is only small consolation. In their eyes, the Indian voter had failed, yet again, to do the right thing. What a pity.Every time an Indian general election comes along, pundits at home and abroad cross their fingers and pray the electorate will return a single party with enough seats to form a government. Apparently, this would be a good thing because one-party rule equals political stability--the essential ingredient, say the wise ones, for good governance and prudent economic management. It follows, naturally, that coalitions are a recipe for chaos.

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Fortunately for India, its voters know that both the theorem and its corollary are arrant nonsense. For most of the country's 52 years, they put their faith in a single party: in return, they got mainly inept governance and incompetent economic management. Since they have no reason to believe that any of the parties currently in the fray is capable of doing much better, they are absolutely right to spread their bets.

The experts also err in supposing that coalition governments are synonymous with instability. After three ruling coalitions in four years, Indian politics has never been more stable. There is a near-total consensus among the parties on every salient issue--economic reform, center-state relations, foreign policy, defense strategy, Kashmir. Coalition politics has forced once-extremist groups to adopt more conciliatory postures. Notice that the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee no longer threatens to raze mosques. Indeed, the election manifestos of the major parties were, in substance, virtually indistinguishable.

Indian politics, therefore, is far from unstable. India's parliament is unstable--but that might be a blessing rather than a bane. Those who are unsure about their hold on power are less likely to misuse it. The only period of parliamentary stability this decade--the 1991-95 Congress Party government--was marked by corruption and scandal. The three coalitions that followed have been, if only by contrast, models of rectitude. Perhaps crooks lose interest in stealing when they have to share the loot with too many partners. Or perhaps the reverse of the rotten-apple syndrome holds true in such cases: one clean party in a coalition forces the others to stay in line. Who knows? Who cares? India needs honest governments much more than it needs durable ones.

One of the standard arguments against coalitions is that they can be held hostage to the whims of small groups. As a result, they don't always serve the best interests of the majority. Champions of one-party rule point to the example of Vajpayee's previous government, which was brought down last April when Congress induced one party in the coalition to bolt. But that desertion took place in an atmosphere of general dissatisfaction with the government's inability to get its act together. Vajpayee had then seemed in a stupor, unable to keep the lunatic fringe of his party from attacking Christians, and public opinion was building against him. (The Kargil adventure boosted Vajpayee's standing, but that came later.) Neither the deserter nor the instigator would have dared bring down the government if it had been effective and popular. And that is Vajpayee's best incentive to deliver good governance this time around: the fear that if he fails, his partners will be susceptible to inducements from Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. Think of it as instant accountability.

Finally, there is the matter of economic management. Are multi-party governments inherently incapable of doing this job right? Consider the evidence. India's GDP growth rate--projected at 6% this year--is among the highest in Asia, despite the frequent changes of power in New Delhi. Could it grow faster under a one-party government? Perhaps. There's no denying that coalitions are slow-moving beasts, needing to hammer out a consensus on every little decision. Sometimes, in the interest of keeping all parties moving in the same direction, they are obliged to take half-steps instead of full strides. The previous Vajpayee administration sought to open India's insurance sector to private investment, but the bill got stuck in a fractious parliament. Though the new team is expected to push through that and other pending pieces of legislation, it probably won't move any more swiftly than its predecessor.

But sloth is a minor vice compared with corruption. Sure, I'd love to see a government in Delhi that is both quick and clean. But that is too much to ask of the current political establishment. Until that situation changes, coalition governments are indeed here to stay. What a pity? No, what a relief!