Assessing the Efficacy of Coalition Governments: Can They Work?

Maintaining a successful partnership often requires more than just ideological alignment.


Can a single party ensure that the needs of the country are met? The 2019 Lok Sabha results, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning over 300 seats, echo Narendra Modi and his party’s call  to elect a “strong government” who could make decisions necessary for the country’s safety. Modi associated these qualities with the BJP–led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and contrasted them with those of the opposition alliance, contending that they were helpless and would “send the nation to the ICU.” 

Governments with large mandates, however, do not always reflect popular sentiment: in 2014, the BJP won over half the Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of just 31%, most of which was concentrated in the Hindi–speaking states. Coalition parties, at the very least, allow for better representation of the country’s diverse populace. Additionally, the political risk involved in partners withdrawing support from such alliances causes governments to create policy acceptable to all. Moreover, growth rates seen from 1999 to 2004 were actually higher than those seen in the recent past, dispelling claims that a single party is necessary for economic growth .

While Modi may rightly criticise the efficacy of coalition governments—the Janata Party, the United Front and the National Front were doomed alliances that failed to hold power at the centre—other coalitions have had some success, despite disagreements between partners: the NDA from 1999 to 2004 and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) from 2004 to 2014 both completed full terms in office. 

Why do some coalitions work, while others do not? As this reading list explains, ideological similarity, and a desire to unseat the incumbent government is not the only reason parties come together.

1) What Does it Take to Maintain a Coalition?

B L Maheshwari writes that in any coalition government, policy decisions are arrived at via a bargaining process, wherein minority coalition partners often work as the opposition, and use the majority partner’s dependence on them to reshape or block policies they do not agree with. 

It is not unnatural for government policies to be modified in response to the demands of the coalition partners. The members of the coalition have to be paid their price. The price a coalition partner can exact, however, is a function of the situation. As long as the price demanded by the coalition partners is not unreasonable and the bargaining process allows resolution of the important problems and evolution of most of the acceptable organisational goals, the coalition will remain intact.

Further, Maheshwari argues that it is this bargaining nature of coalition parties which ensures that such a government will be inherently unstable, but the degree of instability will depend on the coalition composition. Parties that have contrary political orientation and programmes are more likely to fail than those that share common beliefs.

 A minimum common programme is no substitute for ideological harmony. On the other hand, though a degree of ideological similarity helps, it is not enough …  the stability of the coalition will depend on the coalition partners' ability to evolve satisfactory arrangements for allocation of power … The stability of a coalition will also depend on the number of political parties In it. As a general rule, the larger the number of equally balanced political parties, the more unstable the coalition

2) Why Do Parties Enter Coalitions?

Sanjay Ruparella writes that parties enter into agreements primarily to satisfy three interests: to get elected into office, to be able to set policy, and to capture more votes. These main objectives, Ruparella argues, can ensure that ideologically opposed parties function together. Using this hypothesis, Ruparella argues that secular parties’ want of power ensured the NDA’s survival from 1999 to 2004, despite the communally–charged Gujarat riots. 

The goals of parties, factions and their respective leaders may switch between office, policy and votes over time—during coalition formation, after government inauguration and between elections. By overstating the polarity between these goals, formal theories disregard real-world politics…  we need to examine several other factors to determine the dynamics of particular coalition governments: whether sufficient political trust exists or can be created amongst key coalition partners to share power genuinely; whether mechanisms are designed and utilised to facilitate collective decision-making; and whether its leaders possess or can develop the necessary political judgment to broker practical compromises amongst divergent interests. 

3) How Have Previous Coalition Governments Functioned?

Political ideology alone, might not be able to ensure that a coalition does not fail. Kailash K K writes that a successful coalition lies in the ability to play the “middle game,” which is based on the understanding that common goals are better served through joint action, rather than individual action. Imperative to playing the middle game, writes Kailash, is the ability to maintain unity in the face of diversity.

A coalition encounters and overcomes myriad issues, of both exogenous and endogenous nature. These include disagreements and sparring, unexpected pinpricks, posturing by partners, supporters and opponents, unforeseen issues and incidents; all or any of them could change the original terms and conditions, which created the coalition …  the middle game is about building relationships, consolidating commonalities, ironing out differences and broadening the participatory base of governance.   

Kailash argues that the Congress during UPA(I) successfully played this middle game. The party introduced the common minimum programme (CMP), which was created after studying all the parties’ manifestos. The CMP was also essential in maintaining the support of the left parties, as it allowed them to introduce alternate policies to those they did not agree with. 

The agreement to disagree is refreshingly mature in so far as it helped remove unpredictability, enabling partners to estimate actions and reactions in advance …  there is a Left Front coordination committee which brings together the four Left parties, enabling them to “interact” and iron out differences while ensuring the commonalities are achieved … The role of the Left as supporting partners has been instrumental in the UPA adding new routines to the coalition bank, systematising their functioning and attempting to make them more meaningful. 

Read More: 

  1. Contours of a Coalition | Editorial, 2018
  2. Coalition of the Hard and Soft | G P Deshpande, 2010
  3. Lesson of Mayawati's Coalition | Amiya K Chaudhuri, 2007

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