All eyes on Lok Sabha as it pads up for a new innings

Live Mint, June 16, 2019

The House will reflect the reset India’s polity has undergone with emergence of BJP at centre

Later this week, the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha will begin. Over the next five years, 543 lawmakers elected to office after a gruelling campaign that stretched out for three months will guide the country’s destiny as it were. Indeed a proud moment for India’s democratic history—which will clock 75 years in three years from now. Few could have imagined that the country would have stayed the course, especially since the polity in some contemporary nations have descended into dictatorships.

While there is a clear continuity with 275 members of Parliament (MPs)—little more than half—having been re-elected, it is quite apparent that this time around, the House will possess a character which reflects the reset the country’s polity has undergone with the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the principal pole of Indian politics.

This is the first time that the BJP will lead a coalition for a second consecutive five-year term. In 2014, when Narendra Modi inspired the BJP to an audacious win, there were some who claimed that this could be an one-off moment. Five years later, with another stunning verdict, the BJP has proved beyond doubt that its previous success was no accident. The overwhelming nature of the victory with the party winning over 50% of the votes in 12 states only further reinforces the claim that the country’s polity is in the midst of a structural makeover.

With a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha, the NDA is now in a commanding position; in two years, the coalition should be in majority in the Upper House too, further underlining its political dominance. The unprecedented mandate has put the onus on the BJP and Modi to deliver on the expectations they have roused among the electorate.

Second, flowing from the above, the skewed nature of power share in the Lok Sabha puts the spotlight on the opposition parties. During the campaign, they went for broke, stitching together all kinds of alliances and deals to thwart Modi’s bid for a second term; the Congress party, fighting for the first time under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, went a step ahead and smeared Modi with pejoratives. The decimation at the hustings has meant two things: One, the opposition has all but lost its voice; all the more because from the point of view of the Congress, which is still the single largest opposition party, senior parliamentarians lost the election. It will put the spotlight on Gandhi, who suffered a humiliating defeat in the family’s political pocket borough and now represents Kerala’s Wayanad in Parliament. Second, by conducting such a vitriolic campaign, they have potentially burnt crucial bridges with Modi; the resulting shrinking of space for dialogue means that Parliament will probably have to brace for frequent disruptions—which means that we will once again be denied the desired public scrutiny of legislation (contrast this with the debate that preceded the brace of structural economic reform initiatives undertaken in 1991).

Finally, the 17th Lok Sabha will have a record 78 women MPs—16 more than the 16th Lok Sabha; to be sure though at 14%, the share of women MPs in the House is anything but desired. Yet, it is significant that this year the Union budget will be presented on 5 July by a woman. Nirmala Sitharaman will technically be the first woman finance minister as her predecessor was Indira Gandhi who was the prime minister and was holding additional charge of the finance ministry portfolio. Breaking this glass ceiling on gender will add a new dynamic, both within and outside the House.

In the final analysis, it is clear that the 17th Lok Sabha possesses transformative potential. The big question is whether it will be a situation of a cup being half empty or half full. Over to the MPs.

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