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Multi-party Governments: The New Normal

K.K. Kailash

By Sanjay Ruparelia
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xxiv 480, Rs. 995.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 9 September 2016

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall All the King’s horses and King’s men Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again!   This classic nursery rhyme in many ways sums up the story of the ‘thirdfront’, the protagonist of Sanjay Ruparelia’s engaging narrative, Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India. The pioneers in the art of coalition politics at the federal level, the components of the third-front have today gone in different directions and often come together only to separate immediately after that. In this study, Ruparelia explores in elaborate detail the coming together, performance in government and also the unravelling of three third-front federal coalitions, namely the Janata experiment (1977–78), National Front (1989– 1990) and the United Front (1996–98). In each of these coalition formations, the ‘broader Indian Left’ as he prefers to call them played a dominant role in reducing the two polity-wide parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to side actors. For more than a quarter of a century now, India has had a series of multi-party governments. From unstable and short-lived experiments, coalition governments and politics have come a long way. By 2014, three successive coalitions had completed their terms and one of them was even re-elected. Despite multiparty governments becoming the new normal, systematic studies of coalition politics in India have been few and far in between. Sanjay Ruparelia attempts to make good this neglect. Divided We Govern relies on a rich variety of sources and methods including media reportage and commentary, political manifestoes, government documents, writings of politicians, statistical analyses of aggregate and survey data and confidential interviews with political leaders and bureaucrats to bring us the story of the third-front coalitions. The study makes three main contributions. First, in the popular mind, third front coalition experiments are objects of scorn and disgust. Ruparelia’s refusal to buy into the idea that the third-front governments are inept, and their participants are interlopers, makes his study stand apart. Despite being sympathetic, he does not ignore their weaknesses and shortcomings, which have obviously received widespread attention elsewhere. He showcases the third-front’s significant social, economic and political achievements demonstrating that its performance was not unlike other post-Independence governments. Second, Ruparelia’s analytical framework draws from the two grand traditions in coalition studies, which have approached coalition politics from two different directions. While the European politics tradition is primarily inductive and relies on ...

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