Times of India, June 22, 2019
This Monday, the inaugural day of the new Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a statesmanlike assertion. “The presence of a strong and active opposition is an inevitable condition of democracy,” he said. “I hope the opposition parties stop worrying about their number (of MPs).”
For his critics, his sagacity had perhaps a touch of condescension. But, for the world’s largest democracy, his sentiment is exceptionally relevant. Politics, like nature, cannot sustain a vacuum. Under the Modi tsunami, the opposition was largely decimated. After this humiliating drubbing the fragmented opposition has, in public perception and for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. But the space that it needs to occupy has not, and must be filled.
There are several incontrovertible reasons for this. Political uniformity – imposed or by default – is the antithesis of the effervescence of a vibrant democracy. A democratic nation must have more than one view on issues, which are effectively expressed and attentively heard, so as to enrich the entire spectrum of the political landscape. A monochromatic polity, apart from becoming dangerously complacent, ultimately becomes resistant to questioning, challenge and change.
Mature democracies need a political counter narrative. Only ceaseless interrogation can provide a bulwark against any tendency towards autocracy. A polity requires a system of checks and balances. Some of these exist in the structure of the Constitution itself, but there can be no substitute for a vigilant opposition. This is especially important when the ruling party has such a large majority on its own. It is hoped that this will not happen, but large majorities nurture a natural swagger, a tendency to dismiss any non-conforming viewpoint as against the manifest will of the people.
It is not as if there is a shortage of issues which need urgent attention and resolution, and which the opposition can take up. Whatever the government spin in this regard, the fact is that the economy is in serious trouble. Growth rates have dipped; unemployment is at a 45 year high; there is a debilitating liquidity crisis; exports are not picking up; the agriculture sector is reeling under low productivity and drought; and, investments are at a worrying low.
There are deep worries too about the social milieu. With depressing frequency we hear statements from important members of the ruling party that are an open and blatant incitement to communal disharmony. Pragya Singh Thakur, who said that Nathuram Godse was a desh bhakt, took her oath in Parliament to rousing acclaim by the treasury benches. Giriraj Singh, a Union minister, tweeted to express his disapproval of the celebration of Iftar instead of Hindu festivals.
These are discordant notes that militate directly against the PM’s assurance of sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwaas. India, as a nation and a civilisation, can only survive if there is respect for all faiths. The Constitution proclaims that we are a secular Republic. The opposition has its work cut out to ensure that this is followed in practice. There is also the need to respond to the muscular assertion of ultra-nationalism, unfortunately used much too often as a counter to any criticism.
In spite of our underlying civilisational unity, we are a land of great diversities. As against the ruling party’s numerical behemoth, there are localised issues of importance to vast numbers of people, that cannot be brushed under a majoritarian narrative. To provide a voice to those who have been sidelined by a centrally driven triumphal claim to invincibility, is the job of the opposition. This can best be done by bringing together regional parties with those with a pan-Indian presence.
For all these reasons, and in conformity with the PM’s advice, the opposition – and especially Congress – must shake off the stupor of defeat and begin to reconstruct the architecture of a cohesive counter narrative. This will not happen on its own. Leaders of the opposition need to learn the lessons from the past, work towards a common and coordinated agenda, pool their resources, work out a practical line of action that has resonance with the people, and discover a new rallying point around leadership and issues. Working in insular silos, nurturing oversize egos, waiting for some magic wand to make them relevant again, without doing the selfless legwork that constructs a doctrine of protest, is not going to work.
To some extent, it is understandable that currently the opposition is in disarray. But, in a democracy, dissent cannot wait indefinitely for the perfect opportunity. The mood of the people is not written in stone: notwithstanding BJP’s stupendous victory people’s expectations can outstrip governance deliveries; the mood can change; opinions can mutate; appraisals can move swiftly from approval to disappointment. The opposition must be geared to sense this and provide the correcting critique to the ruling dispensation.
What the opposition needs to do most is to restore its credibility. For this, it must not only protest but also act responsibly, and convince the people that it can be a viable alternative. Perhaps, the first step in this endeavour must be to allow Parliament to function. Instead of disrupting proceedings, Parliament is where the opposition’s voice must be heard loud and clear.
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