On the first day of the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the elephant in the House: The severely diminished space of the Opposition in Parliament. And the prime ministerial words were reassuring. Parties of the Opposition, he said, should not worry about their paltry numbers as every word of theirs was “valuable” for his government. An “active Opposition, an effective Opposition”, he said, “is a pre-requisite for parliamentary democracy” and expressed confidence that the spirit of bi-partisanship would trump and transcend the faultlines of “paksh” and “vipaksh”, government and Opposition. After a Lok Sabha election which saw the ruling NDA return to power with an overweening majority — the BJP alone has 303 seats in the 543-member House, and the NDA has 353, while the Congress falls three seats short of the number required to stake claim to the status of Leader of Opposition — the PM and his party will be held to his assurance of accomodation and the democratic spirit. It will, of course, be the Opposition’s challenge to make itself heard in the BJP-dominated House. But the larger responsibility for the conduct of debate in a way that includes and respects all and not just the majority’s views, lies with the government. The PM has done well to acknowledge that at the very outset of his second term.
The PM’s assurance will be tested in a session in which controversial issues and contentious legislation may come up — be it the proposed switch to one-nation-one-election or the bill criminalising triple talaq that failed to become law in the preceding Modi regime. But it is also shadowed by the way Parliament functioned, or failed to, in the last five years. As the Congress has been quick to point out, the 16th Lok Sabha saw the government take the ordinance route all too often, evidently to bypass questions and debate, instead of treating it as an emergency measure. Key bills were pushed through without according them the necessary and desirable legislative scrutiny through committees. The way in which the government with a decisive mandate relegated the Opposition inside Parliament, while remaining in what seemed to be permanent electoral campaign mode outside it, has led to a disbelief in its commitment to listen to the political opponent, not just have its own way. It will be the government’s task, most of all, to reach out, and address that disbelief. It must ensure that the norms of constitutional democracy, not the brute dead-ends of majoritarianism, prevail.
For the Opposition, an uphill journey begins now. It cannot just depend on the government’s generosity or scruple. It will be watched for how it pools its strengths, how well or poorly it marshals its resources and uses its opportunities to influence legislation and hold the government to account.