Shortly before the first session of the newly-elected 17th Lok Sabha began on the morning of June 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the customary media appearance and underlined that a pro-active opposition is an indispensable component of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. More importantly, Modi asked the opposition parties not to worry about their sharply reduced numerical strength in the Lok Sabha after the crushing defeat most of them suffered in the recent parliamentary elections.
But where is the main opposition Congress? The question has begun to be asked as the opposition parties are reeling under a crushing defeat in the parliamentary elections. What is worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide win has thrown almost all opposition parties into disarray and some of them have suffered desertion in their ranks. Congress President Rahul Gandhi has stuck to his decision to quit taking responsibility for the party’s electoral drubbing. The poll results, which gave Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party a much bigger mandate with 303 seats and the alliance led by the saffron party 353 seats in parliament, have dealt a body blow to anti-BJP parties like Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Telugu Desam Party, Janata Dal (S), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left. The alliance between SP and BSP has come unstuck and the tie-up among the Congress and Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka is under severe strains. Taken together, there is a serious churn in the opposition camp post-poll.
The credibility of the opposition is also low. The opposition parties have not helped themselves by carrying out an eye-wash analysis of the causes responsible for their defeat in the election. BSP chief Mayawati blamed her party’s performance on SP’s inability to ensure transfer of its own support base, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and TDP boss Naidu held alleged manipulation of EVMs for the unfavourable poll verdict.
The Congress leader of the opposition in Maharashtra Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil switched over to the BJP and was promptly rewarded with a ministerial berth. The TDP led by former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, one of the prime movers of opposition unity, saw four out of its six lawmakers in the Rajya Sabha switching allegiance to the BJP. Six legislators and nearly two dozen councillors of Trinamool Congress have also joined the saffron party. Seldom has the opposition number appeared so curtailed and their moral so low. The electoral setback has also divided the opposition on putting up a united front against Modi in the future with a section of them, including the Congress, favouring separate paths.
The biggest challenge the opposition faces after its depleted strength in the Lok Sabha is how to remain itself as a force to be counted or its voice heard in holding the government accountable and questioning its policies. That is all the more important because the opposition’s majority in the 245-strong Rajya Sabha is likely to evaporate by 2021 particularly if the BJP manages to win a series of coming state polls in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana later this year and make major gains in Delhi and West Bengal in the next couple of years.
There is little doubt that the BJP will go flat out to maximise its gains from these state elections in order to boost its strength in the Rajya Sabha, whose members are elected by members of assemblies in states. The BJP is keen to push some of the key Bills relating to instant triple talaq and Citizenship Amendment to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The BJP is keen to revive these two Bills afresh after they failed to clear the Rajya Sabha hurdle (even though those were approved by the previous Lok Sabha) and consequently collapsed.
True, electoral parliamentary democracy is about majority in the number game but the triumph of majoritarianism runs the risk of degenerating into one-party rule. Since, the prime minister has said that every idea of the opposition would be considered, it remains to be seen if and to what extent his government armed with such a decisive mandate accommodates the opposition’s views. The government must resist the temptation to take recourse to an emergency measure like ordinance and bulldoze the government Bills in parliament without debates or without subjecting them to scrutiny of parliamentary committees that include the opposition parties. If the opposition faces the test of its ability to make its voice heard, so does the BJP as to how much it can carry the opposition along.
Modi began his second stint as the prime minister by reaching out to the opposition through two initiatives in quick succession. First, he invited the heads of all parties having representation in parliament to a meeting to discuss his pet idea of having simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, as was the practice till 1960s, and secondly by hosting a dinner for all parties. But there was no sign that the ice between the government and the opposition has begun to melt because several key opposition parties shunned Modi’s efforts for a consensus.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.