Ruling and opposition party members at central hall of Parliament in New Delhi. (PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The functioning of parliamentary sessions has degenerated to such an abysmal level that citizens have started wondering whether Indian democracy is collapsing.

It was 1996. The erstwhile Soviet Union had disintegrated and Russia’s economy was in dire straits. Under Boris Yeltsin, the country was headed for elections and the Sukhoi aircraft factory, located in his constituency, was on the verge of closure, rendering a multitude of workers jobless. It would have affected Yeltsin’s campaign adversely.

Invoking decades of close friendship and military assistance, Yeltsin requested India’s caretaker prime minister P V Narasimha Rao for an advance for the Sukhoi factory even before concluding the deal for the aircraft. It was conveyed that such a gesture would be considered a special favour. The advance was to be subsequently adjusted against the final contract. Undoubtedly, it would have been a patently irregular act but Rao realised the political and diplomatic benefits for India. In addition, the Sukhoi was a first-rate fighter jet. However, he knew that the opposition parties would term it a scam to fault his government.

With a view to pre-empt such a situation, it was decided to get the main opposition party on board. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh were invited by the then defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to attend a presentation on the subject. They were taken into confidence and their concurrence obtained. Consequently, the irregular advance of $365 million never became a scam and no controversy was ever generated. The country benefited by getting a modern aircraft at highly favourable terms as Yeltsin remembered the favour done to Russia in its hour of need.

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Thus an act done in good faith by the government with the national interest in mind was supported by the opposition party. Vajpayee understood the rationale and did not want to scuttle the deal for an excellent aircraft. It was a pragmatic approach and the matter was never made an election issue.

The above incident has been recalled here to highlight the fact that the national interest can best be served when both the ruling party and the opposition parties rise above narrow party interests and work in tandem. Rao, Vajpayee and Yadav joined hands to ensure that the national interest remains supreme.

The Role Of Opposition Parties

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India opted to follow the British parliamentary system, wherein the majority party is invited to form the government and is referred to as the ruling party. The political party with the second largest number of seats gets the respectable tag of being the main opposition party. In Britain, the main opposition party is formally known as Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition or the Official Opposition and the leader of this party takes the title of Leader of the Opposition. It demonstrates the importance that is assigned to the role of opposition parties in a democracy.

Unfortunately, the term “opposition” is a misnomer with negative connotations and has affected the psyche of politicians. According to lexicon, “opposition” means resistance, hostility, antagonism, antipathy, enmity, objection, dissent, criticism, defiance, non-compliance, obstruction, obstructiveness, counteraction, conflict, clash, difference, contrast, disparity and antithesis. Unfortunately, in developing democracies, most opposition parties interpret their role literally and have thus come to believe that their sole role is to be anti-government; and India is no exception.

The most important role of the opposition in a democracy is that of a “watchdog”. It holds the government accountable through close oversight of its functioning and making all shortcomings public. Regular scrutiny of the executive’s functioning and constant questioning help a vigilant opposition in constantly reminding the ruling party of the promises made to the electorate while seeking votes. An alert opposition is the best preventive antidote to governmental slackness and complacence.

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It is for the opposition to expose misuse of powers, misdemeanours and financial irregularities, and generate public pressure for prompt action against the guilty. All acts of omission and commission must be highlighted. Malicious witch hunts to malign political opponents by planting fabricated accusations through presstitute media must be avoided. Criticism must always be well-informed and all allegations duly substantiated.

As the opposition always projects itself as a “government in waiting”, it should be able to suggest alternate approaches to the nation’s problems through different policy statements and strategies. Through well-reasoned debates in Parliament, it should apprise the people of its views and ideologies. By studying and scrutinising legislative proposals, it can force the government to be transparent in its functioning.

An active and constructive opposition is the best guarantee of a functional and healthy democracy. It imposes caution on the government against despotic tendencies through public awareness. It ensures that the government follows the provisions of the Constitution in letter and spirit, thereby looking after the interests of all segments of the populace.

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Mutual Accommodation

It should never be forgotten that the ruling party and the opposition are two pillars of a democracy. Both have important roles to play and both have their responsibilities. As it happens between two contestants in sports, once the match is over, both shake hands and applaud each other. There is no bitterness between the winner and the loser. The same should apply to elections and the accusations made against each other during the heat of electioneering should be quickly forgotten. Howsoever antagonistic the mutual equation may be, basic decorum should never be lost sight of.

It is for the ruling party to make the first move towards reconciliation with the opposition. Despite winning the elections, it should not develop an attitude of arrogance. By engaging opposition in discussions, it can benefit from their inputs to evolve well-rounded policies. The government should always remember that the opposition members represent their respective constituencies and hence are equally responsible for the betterment of the country. They are not the enemies of the state who need to be shunned.

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On the other hand, the opposition must be mature enough to respect the verdict of the people and not be seen as a whining and disgruntled bunch of losers. Instead of sulking and throwing tantrums like a poor loser, it should perform the role of constructive opposition and thereby project itself as a competent alternative, worthy of people’s trust in future elections.

The practice of forming a “shadow cabinet” for focused oversight has been a success in Britain. India could also adopt the same. Instead of a few spokespersons parroting standard party lines, it will be far better if talented opposition leaders are assigned ministry-specific oversight responsibilities, thereby keeping the government alert.

Unbecoming Conduct

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Parliament provides an ideal forum for an effective opposition to corner the government. The opposition can demand that time be set aside for discussing legislative proposals and other specific issues. The question hour is another big tool and incisive questions can be asked to make the government take note of their concerns. The system of parliamentary committees can be intelligently exploited to suggest alternate courses. The opposition has to do considerable homework to be able to put the government on the defensive. It is the quality of debate and not the numerical strength of the opposition that matters.

Unfortunately, the functioning of parliamentary sessions in India has degenerated to such an abysmal level that citizens have started wondering whether democracy is collapsing in the country. It is simply disgusting to see opposition members storming the well of the House, displaying placards, tearing papers, shouting slogans and even resorting to heckling to prevent the House from transacting any business.

A new issue is concocted every day to disrupt the House. Worse, they seem to be quite unabashedly enjoying themselves, joking and goading one another to shout louder. Smug smiles adorn their faces upon forcing an adjournment of the House. Many citizens are today demanding a change in the rules of business. Any member entering the well of the House or shouting slogans or displaying placards should attract automatic suspension for the rest of the session with due deduction of pay and pension. The people of India are not paying taxes to reward members for indulging in hooliganism.

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A cartoon making the rounds on social media shows a father watching the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) channel and his young son querying him, “Dad, why watch WWE when Parliament is in session? It has more action, sloganeering, chaos, pandemonium and disorder. What excitement, with the Chair looking more helpless than the WWE referee!” Another cartoon shows a young boy telling his father, “Why engineer or doctor? I want to be a Parliament member. It is the most lucrative job in the world — enormous power, salaries and privileges with lifetime pension — only for shouting slogans for a few days a year.” Undoubtedly, these cartoons reflect the feelings of the citizens of this country.

Finally…

Ideological differences do not mean harming the national interest. The role of the opposition in Parliament is basically to check the excesses of the ruling or dominant party, and not to be perennially antagonistic. The opposition has every legal right to question the policies/bills that the government proposes. However, it must respond to them on their merit. It is understandably a tightrope walk — supporting the government boosts the standing of the government, while opposing it may show the opposition in a poor light amongst the masses. But statesmanship implies both constructive support and well-reasoned criticism.

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Let me end with a revealing experience on a flight to Delhi. It was July 2014 and Narendra Modi had taken over as Prime Minister a couple of months earlier. During a casual conversation, a co-passenger, who turned out to be a mid-level opposition leader, declared ominously, “Modi’s honeymoon period will not last for more than six months. Thereafter, we will create so much social upheaval in the country that he would regret coming to Delhi.”

At that time, I dismissed it as an empty boast, but now, in hindsight, realise the viciousness of his statement. Do we see a pattern in the intolerance campaign — unrest in the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities; converting Rohith Vermula’s unfortunate suicide into an attack on Dalits; “Not In My Name” protests and beef controversies? It is anti-nationalism at its worst.

In a democracy, the relationship between the electorate and the elected leaders is of reciprocal trust. It is based on solemn commitments. Leaders seek support on the basis of certain promises; people trust them and vote them to power.

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Since elected leaders are expected to deliver on the promises made, people demand accountability at the end of their tenure in power. The opposition must not act as an impediment and stall all progressive measures.

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