As the new BJP government completes two months in office, it is quite clear that it does not intend to shift the tone, tenor and substance of politics. Having been elected on a wave of expectations, the BJP has started sending signals that, at least in the field of political conduct, it does not have a game plan to seize the initiative and think differently. The first signal came in the way it dealt with the issue of appointing governors, as this writer argued on these pages (‘If there were no governors’, IE, June 26). The issue of the leader of the opposition (LoP) appears to be another signal. As in the case of the governors, this is not about a few individuals or one person getting some perks. This is about the way institutions are handled. Democratic politics is as much about institutions as it is about mobilisations and winning elections. Having proven its ability in the latter terrain, the BJP seems to be following in the footsteps of its predecessors in disregarding the responsibility to build and strengthen institutions. To ridicule the Congress for not being eligible for the post of LoP is easy and rooted in transient politics. Dealing with the issue in a more mature and farsighted manner can open up space for the institutionalisation of political practice. According to the existing provisions, the Congress does not have the required numbers. But the issue now is whether an alliance can be recognised as a legislative party for the purpose of designating an LoP. Assuming that the leader of the Congress in the House is not entitled to “salaries, perks and cabinet rank” as per the existing legislation, the more complicated issue is whether the various committees that require the LoP to be a member (such as the committee for the appointment of the CVC) can function without her. The BJP is said to be dodging the second issue by contemplating an amendment to the relevant acts. A government that amended the TRAI regulations to suit its convenience could easily revise the LoP act and agree to make the leader of the single largest party or the leader of the largest alliance the LoP. Therefore, the argument that the designation of the LoP requires a specific strength in the House is rather specious. The government appears to be taking refuge in technicalities in trying to deny the Congress leader the position. In the end, it might, with bad grace, agree to make the leader of the largest party/ alliance the LoP, after having tested the patience of the Congress on this issue. It might also want to show the Congress in a poor light by demonstrating how the party is craving that position. But in the process, the BJP contributes to the demeaning of the office and the larger idea that government and opposition together are responsible for running the affairs of Parliament. In the meanwhile, the Congress has also not done much to deserve being called the leader of the opposition. Instead of strategising how best to become the de facto leader of the opposition, the Congress is seen running from pillar to post (reportedly even considering recourse to the judiciary) to get that recognition. The Congress may take pride in the fact that it has disrupted proceedings in the House somewhat effectively. But whether it can force the government to rethink any matter is a crucial test. Besides, whether a parliamentary victory was won by voice power or the power of argument will, in the long run, determine whether the Congress wants to do justice to procedural decorum or just make its presence felt. It would do well to revisit the remarks made by the speakers of the 14th and 15th Lok Sabhas on the issue of decorum and the obligations of parliamentarians. This Lok Sabha is quite different from the Houses where the BJP was a large opposition party around which the NDA was woven. The Congress is not only weak, but also isolated. The so-called UPA has become almost fictitious. Other major parties in the opposition, such as the TMC, AIADMK and BJD, are not only outside the Congress-led coalition, but also the main opponents of the Congress in their respective states. This has put the Congress in a tricky position where it has to coordinate with its opponents. It will require floor management, which the Congress was weak in even when in power. More than that, it will require a flexibility of approach and a readiness to build broad-based coalitions. This is exactly what the Congress lacks. The 16th Lok Sabha has at least four major players in the opposition: the TMC, AIADMK, BJD and Congress. All of them are currently in power in some state or the other and so have to manage their state’s interests. Therefore, structurally, there is very narrow room for a concerted opposition to the NDA. Besides, barring the Congress, the state-based parties have limited interest in opposing the BJP — they would be willing to do business with it almost any time and, as such, might not be “in opposition” to the government. So the Congress will not only have to take the initiative, but also tread cautiously to ensure broader and more durable opposition to the government. Such an initiative can take shape only if the Congress chooses to oppose the government on two broad principles — democratic propriety and procedure on one hand, and states’ rights on the other. Both these platforms can be acceptable to the other parties in the opposition and help the Congress gain sympathetic public opinion. The experience so far, not only in the last two months but also during NDA rule from 1998 to 2004, is that the Congress is clueless when in opposition. Perhaps long years in government have robbed the party of the skills of an opposition. Even in the states where it has been in opposition, its performance has been dismal. Therefore, the demand that its leader be recognised as LoP is rather pathetic — a party should be recognised as the opposition on the strength of its policies, its leadership and the confidence it inspires as an alternative, not just on the basis of legal provisions and the generosity of the ruling party. When either the ruling party or the opposition is unconcerned with institutionalising political practices, it is bad enough, when both show the same symptoms, it underscores the bankruptcy of the political establishment. The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune email@example.com
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