This article provides a brief explanation of the political phenomenon of a “hung parliament.” Though it is simple to understand, hung parliaments can often be confused, and different political theorists use the term in different ways. This article uses the mainstream definition of the term to provide a commonly-accepted explanation to it.
This article is further divided into four sections. An introductory section explains the term and provides the synonyms that are otherwise used in its stead. It also talks about the recent occurrences of hung parliaments internationally. The next section delves into the history and frequency of hung parliaments in India. The third and fourth sections explain the aftermath and implications of hung parliaments respectively. Finally, the author provides a concluding note.
A “hung parliament” is a term used primarily in Westminster political models to refer to a situation where no political party or pre-electoral political coalition has a simple majority of legislators in parliament or any other legislative body. It is also sometimes referred to as a “balanced parliament” or a legislature under “no overall control.” The term is frequently used in India. Though some also refer to a hung parliament as a “minority government,” it is typically reserved for use before a government is sworn in.
After electoral negotiations, a hung parliament can either result in a minority government or in a coalition government with a majority. It can also result in the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. Israel is a somewhat infamous example of the latter: it is slated to hold its fourth general elections in two years after elections turned up hung parliaments with political parties failing to reach workable coalition or “confidence and supply” arrangements.
Hung parliaments are relatively infrequent in primarily two-party systems that use the first-past-the-post system such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, but they are not impossible: indeed, the UK very recently witnessed a hung parliament after the 2017 election where Prime Minister Theresa May’s government was reduced from a parliamentary majority to a minority government. May, however, remained prime minister after securing a “confidence and supply” agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
History and Frequency of Hung Parliaments in India
Hung parliaments are a relatively recent occurrence, at least on a common level, in Indian politics. After Independence, the Congress party, which was created to advance the interests of Indians during the British Raj, functioned as a broad church. Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress won several elections consecutively with parliamentary majorities. After a brief spell where it was led by Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi led the party and continued winning majorities for the Congress.
Thus, in the thirty-year period after Independence (from 1947 to 1977), the governments were formed by the Congress party which won absolute majorities in parliament. Though the Congress would go on to win absolute majorities in two more elections after that (1980 and 1984), this spell of one-party dominance was interrupted by a hung parliament after the 1977 election where no one party had a majority in parliament. The Janata Party, though, would go on to form the government.
It was the 1990s that witnessed an unparalleled number of hung parliaments and was infamous for the instability of governments that resulted from them. After the shaky but stable Congress government from 1991 to 1995, the short-lived first Vajpayee government, H.D. Deve Gowda government, and the I.K. Gujral government succeeded, each collapsing because of horse-trading and lack of support in parliament. Thereafter, the second Vajpayee government was formed (although in a hung parliament), lasting till it called early elections.
The country was to continue to witness hung parliaments till 2014, although it had relatively stable governments (led by the Congress).
What happens after a hung parliament?
After a hung parliament, the president—typically a powerless, figurehead entity—assumes a role of importance. In the event of a hung state assembly, it is the governor who assumes this role.
There is nothing mentioned in the Indian Constitution about the procedures following a hung parliament or assembly. All that is written is that the President shall appoint the Prime Minister. However, precedent and common-law history suggest the following order of precedence for an invitation to form the government:
- leader of the single largest party
- leader of the largest pre-poll alliance
- leader of the largest post-poll alliance
However, this ranking is rather shaky itself. President Mukherjee, in his memoirs, noted that he would have invited the Congress party, even if the BJP emerged as the single largest party in 2014, to form the government based on their track record of maintaining coalition governments. Thus, the order of precedence established by President Shankar Dayal Sharma is certainly not set in stone and is amenable to change whenever required.
Implications of hung parliaments
Political theorists and analysts, both in the West and in India, tend to look at hung parliaments negatively, arguing that they bring instability and uncertainty in government. Some national security analysts also argue that hung parliaments are a vulnerable time for the country vis-à-vis national security, with no clear leader or government in sight.
However, there are also those who take a positive view of hung parliaments. They argue that hung parliaments, and consequently minority governments, allow for more democratic governance, with members of civil society participating more vibrantly. They point to the passing of the RTI, food security, and MGNREGA legislation in technically minority governments as proof of that fact. They also argue that hung parliaments tend to produce governments that are more federal-minded, as they have to include regional parties in their fold.
Moreover, they point to the ‘success’ of coalition governments (as a result of hung parliaments) in India, with the coalition governments of P.V. Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh doing better than some other majority governments.
In conclusion, hung parliaments are a complex phenomenon to evaluate, with no real consensus on whether they are good or bad in sight. Hung parliaments are nearly as old as the Westminster model itself, and, though rare in most Western countries, rear their head there from time to time. In India, it is much more common.
India certainly needs to adopt formal procedures to deal with the formation of the government after a hung parliament. The current arbitrary set-up is unworkable in the long run, as it can easily lend itself to a partisan president inviting the leader of her former political party to form the government, even with little chance of forming the government.