Book Review: Sanjay Ruparelia, Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India

Date01 December 2016
AuthorMona G. Mehta
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterBook Reviews
252 Book Reviews
The final section—‘Texts and Folk Narratives’—contains two essays that explore the themes of place
and region. The essay by Badri Narayan examines the fascinating Bhaigat folk religious tradition that
irreverently crosses state and national borders. A non-Brahmanical tradition practiced mostly by margin-
alized groups, it defies the boundaries of the modern state. Sadan Jha’s beautifully written essay explores
the landscape of ‘backwardness’ in Purnea through an analysis of the literary works of Phanishwarnath
Renu. While not neatly fitting into the overall themes of development and social justice, these essays
provide an intriguing, if unconventional, finale to the volume.
This empirically rich and diverse volume highlights the complexity of Bihar’s contemporary political
economy. Meaningful development and social justice in Bihar will require many years of sustained effort
and struggle, especially over the issue of land. This is something that Bihar’s new ruling alliance should
take to heart if it is serious about pro-poor governance. Overall, this is a valuable book that scholars
interested in contemporary Bihar will likely use as a reference for years to come.
Jeffrey Witsoe
Union College
Sanjay Ruparelia, Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India. New Delhi: Oxford University
Press, 2016. 520 pages. `995
DOI: 10.1177/2321023016665667
Coalition politics has been popularly construed in India as an impediment to a stable and efficient
democracy. Yet, for almost half of India’s life as a parliamentary democracy, coalition governments have
ruled it. Given this fact, understanding the workings of coalition politics can hold important clues about
the nature of India’s democracy. How should we evaluate coalition governments beyond considerations
of stability and instability? What do coalition politics tell us about democracy and plurality in India?
Sanjay Ruparelia’s Divided We Govern investigates how national coalition governments described
as the ‘broader parliamentary left’ in India arose since the 1970s, what they contributed to Indian
democracy and ultimately why they could not last. Focusing especially on three coalition governments—
the Janata Party (1977–1980), the National Front (1989–1991) and the United Front (1996–1998)—the
book claims to evaluate the ‘third force’ in Indian politics insofar as these formations sought to
challenge the two dominant national parties, the centrist Indian National Congress (INC) and the rightist
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The book brings much-needed attention to the study of coalition politics, a topic that has not been
adequately studied. It takes a largely sympathetic view of the achievements of coalition governments and
challenges the popular assumption that national coalitions are opportunistic formations motivated by the
urge to secure power. It argues that far from dismissing coalition governments as failed political forma-
tions, a careful reading of their performance reveals a string of achievements, including improvements
in centre–state relations within India, increased trade, investment and liberalization of the economy and
better foreign relations between India and its neighbours.
Through a comparison of the parliamentary cabinet government versus the winner-takes-all logic of
presidential systems, Ruparelia discusses why the institutional arrangements of the Indian federal system
make it inherently favourable towards executive power sharing in a highly diverse political party
landscape. This also engendered formal and informal mechanisms by which internal divisions and
disagreements within coalitions had to be managed.

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