Grand Strategy: Coalition governments don’t necessarily mean weak foreign policy

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By Mahtab Ahmad

After a decade of single-party rule, which witnessed several significant foreign policy changes and realignments in New Delhi, a new BJP-led coalition has assumed office in New Delhi.

President Droupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his council of ministers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday.
President Droupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his council of ministers at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on Sunday.

This has led to some speculation, including some unease, about the country’s foreign policy direction under a coalition government. The argument goes something like this: A coalition government might not do as well on the foreign policy front as a strong single-party government did over the past decade. The crashing of the stock market on the counting day was perhaps symbolic of such fear. Some have also argued, comparing the UPA years with the last decade of the BJP rule, that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to cater to the whims and fancies of his coalition partners, thereby preventing bold foreign policy steps.

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This argument is based on three assumptions. One, a strong leader, with unwavering political backing, could effect better foreign policy outcomes than a weak coalition government. Two, coalition governments in general struggle to make strong foreign policy choices due to competing interests and coalition dynamics, which can preoccupy the government thereby limiting the time and patience required for major foreign policy initiatives. Finally, it is also believed that a single-party government can negotiate better with foreign counterparts or withstand any external pressure more effectively than a coalition government.

For sure, there is no denying that a rickety coalition government with uncertain support, or expectation of longevity, or partners working at cross purposes, is unlikely to make any major strides in foreign policy. That being the exception, the view that coalition governments underperform on the foreign policy front is inaccurate.

To begin with, notwithstanding the exception mentioned above, when it comes to routine foreign policy decisions, the political structure of the government in India doesn’t matter since the country has a permanent foreign policy bureaucracy that keeps the foreign policy work going. India’s parliament has little or no role in the formulation of India’s foreign policy for the most part, except of course debating it, considering that parliament’s ratification is not required on the government’s foreign policy decisions, unlike say in the case of the US.

Foreign policy hardly sells in India’s domestic politics, which makes the country’s politicians generally disinterested in the subject. As a result, coalition partners rarely disrupt or influence foreign policy unless they have direct implications for their regional interests. This is also because coalitions are typically led by one national party with a clearly articulated foreign policy agenda with the support of regional parties with limited, provincial or no interest in foreign policy.

Moreover, since politicians in India are usually disinterested in foreign policy matters, there is broad consensus on the country’s foreign policy under normal circumstances.

Secondly, coalition governments have generally done well in the past on foreign policy questions. Consider, for instance, the Narasimha Rao government, which did a great job in navigating the polycrisis of the early 1990s: The economic challenges, insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir, India-Pakistan tensions, loss of Russia as a major strategic partner, US pressure on India’s nuclear programme, among others. Rao managed them well even though the Congress party had only 232 seats, and faced three no-confidence votes between 1992 and 1993.

Here’s another example. One of the most consequential decisions pertaining to India’s security policy, the nuclear test of 1998, was made when BJP leader AB Vajpayee was running a coalition government with 182 seats.

Then there are times when coalition governments, theoretically speaking, are in a position to perform better than single-party governments. In fact, weaker national governments can ‘use’ their ‘weakness’ as a part of their diplomatic toolkit in international negotiations.

For instance, the Manmohan Singh government was able to extract several substantial concessions from the Bush administration during the Indo-US nuclear negotiations arguing that the UPA coalition government would fall if those concessions were not factored into the agreement, which of course was the truth, and the US negotiators had to accept it as they wanted the deal as much as the Indians did.

If so, a coalition government with diverse domestic pulls and pressures may be well placed to, for instance, negotiate better free trade deals which India will be negotiating with a number of countries over the next few years.

It is too soon to predict what direction the new government’s foreign policy will take. However, the key foreign policy initiatives of the past decade are likely to continue for at least three reasons. One, the current global structural realities do not allow for major foreign policy readjustments on India’s side. New Delhi’s policies towards the US, Indo-Pacific, and the course correction towards the neighbourhood could see continuation. Secondly, there is a broad domestic consensus on the fundamentals of the country’s foreign policy which I don’t foresee undergoing a significant shift. Third, as argued above, coalition dynamics on their own may have little radical influence on the foreign policy of Modi 3.0.

I will conclude with two potential areas where the dynamics of coalition politics could affect India’s foreign policy. One, coalition dynamics may put pressure on the government’s ability to pursue FTA negotiations with the same sure-footedness given the provincial interests of its coalition partners, but then such pressure can be leveraged during negotiations, as pointed out above.

Secondly, it is also reasonable to anticipate some change vis-à-vis China under the changed domestic political scenario. The emergence of a more powerful opposition could lead to increased scrutiny of the government’s China policy, potentially forcing New Delhi to take a more hardline stance vis-à-vis Chinese aggression on the Line of Actual Control. The newly sworn-in National Democratic Alliance government’s foreign policy would be influenced by coalition dynamics, but that is unlikely to weaken the country’s foreign policy.

Happymon Jacob teaches India’s foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defence Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are personal.

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