When the United Front (UF) governments led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral were succeeded by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, many political commentators in Kerala claimed, "What Kerala does today, India does tomorrow". This was with reference to what seemed like the adoption of Kerala's model of coalition politics at the national level after nearly three decades .
This, however, does not necessarily mean that coalition politics in itself is a great virtue or a reflection of a broader democratic process. At the national level, we have seen that the coalition politics of NDA and UPA led to uncontrolled corruption by alliance partners.
No doubt, Vajpayee was able to exercise more effective control over the alliance partners than Manmohan Singh. I remember seeing a DMK minister almost jumping to attention when he received a telephonic call from prime minister Vajpayee’s principal secretary Brijesh Mishra. On the other hand, a DMK minister, when advised by the secretary of his ministry to speak to prime minister Manmohan Singh before taking a controversial decision, reportedly said that his prime minister lived in Chennai.
The greater control exercised over alliance ministers by Vajpayee is often ascribed to his greater political acumen. While this may be true to some extent, it must be recognized that at that point in time, Congress coming back to power under 'foreign origin' Sonia Gandhi was considered unthinkable nationally and, hence, the alliance partners felt that they had no alternative to being in the NDA if they wanted to remain in power.
I still remember attending the last cabinet meeting before the Vajpayee government announced that it was calling early elections. The pervasive mood in the cabinet was one of supreme confidence in the NDA’s ability to come back with increased majority. DMK left NDA toward the end of Vajpayee’s five-year term only because of the feeling that it was about to be thrown out by an overconfident NDA. It was just fortuitous that this turned out to be a lucky gamble for them!
The problem of the tail wagging the head has been even more serious in Kerala because of the extremely narrow margins of victory that brought one of the two fronts to power in alternate elections.
Even in other states, there have been instances of independents being made ministers in return for their support for a party or a coalation. But what is unique about the Kerala coalition firmament is that people like R. Balakrishna Pillai, T.M. Jacob and Baby John have been hailed as state-level leaders though their parties would not be able to come to power even in a panchayat on their own.
For the last many years, these leaders have managed to become ministers in charge of important departments as part of one UDF government or the other. This is because of their unique ability to act as bellwether leaders, jumping from one front to the other at the right moment and creating a bandwagon effect. If UDF had come to power with a larger majority in the last state elections as was earlier expected, T.M. Jacob, Shibu Baby John and K.B. Ganesh Kumar would not have become ministers. If that had happened, these three parties would have disappeared without a trace like KTP of Fr. Vadakkan and KSP of the Manjooran brothers. What luck!
To some extent, CPM has been able to keep its alliance partners on a tighter leash than Congress. This is not because of CPM’s greater political management skills but because Congress has the more challenging task of managing its relationship with Muslim League and Kerala Congress, which are backed by electorally powerful communities. People of Kerala will not easily forget how they were made mute witnesses to the unedifying spectacle of Muslim League demanding and getting all the important portfolios for their ministers and then a fifth minister. We now have an education minister not very different from the DMK minister mentioned above in that he seems to think that the chief minister of Kerala for him is the one residing in Panakkad!
The influence of Kerala Congress has been less debilitating because its leader K.M. Mani, who is now in his eighties, has been lately more anxious to stabilize his family’s legacy than in protecting his community’s interests, and the other Kerala Congress minister, P.J. Joseph, is generally considered objective and honest. In any case, the influence of Kerala Congress does not extend beyond the archdiocese of Changanacherry and the dioceses of Palai and Idukki.
While it may not be fair to lay the blame for all the travails of Kerala, like the steep decline in educational standards, at the doorstep of coalition politics, it must be recognized that the callous disregard for public interest even in a politically conscious state is inherent in the kind of coalition politics practised by us.
(The author is a former Civil Aviation Secretary and former member, Union Public Service Commission)