As a political structure, democracy has evolved from its nascent stage and so has the role of the opposition. The role of the opposition is not just limited to oppose the incumbent government; it acts as a check and balance, actively fights corruption, imparts civic education, and helps shape policy. Democracy implies dissent and debate. It is a government by discussion and persuasion, not coercion. For a thriving democracy, an effective, vigilant and working opposition is indispensable. In most democratic nations, a two- or multi-party system exists, which helps maintain the elasticity of the political machinery. The opposition safeguards the country from turmoil and gives its people the option of choice in case of non-performance by the reigning party.
Today, the world’s two largest democracies – India and USA – are in a political quagmire. One party owns the majority entirely and the opposition has been reduced to mere tokenism. The incumbent parties run the country and leave little or no space for the opposition to play its part. In fact, this trend of a weak opposition is mirrored in many democracies throughout the world. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen similar trends where ruling parties have institutionalized there reign on power. Even in progressive countries like Singapore, the presence of opposition is merely symbolic. The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled the state of Singapore continuously since its assumption of power in 1959. While for some countries the trend of a weak opposition may not be worrisome, it can be an object of agony for others. A weak opposition stunts the political process of the country, and governments, if left unchecked, may be motivated to implement regressive policies and draconian laws.
Historically, the opposition has acted as a unified faction resisting the arbitrary policies of the party in power. Its critical attitude leads the charge for an open discussion wherein the opposition can directly question the policy makers in public view. It generates an atmosphere of transparency and maintains the health of the political process. In the present Indian scenario, the opposition has so far failed to meet its objective. It appears fragmented, lost and quite frankly disillusioned. The Congress party is burdened by its own legacy of the Gandhis and Nehrus. The label of “dynasty-raj” has become synonymous with the party and has stifled its growth as well as the careers of many good politicians. The dynastic tag makes it difficult to garner public support despite which they have made no attempts to shed this image. This puts the state of affairs in our country in a precarious position: without a strong opposition, the incumbent party has the ability to move Parliament to draft laws like the beef ban, or impose an unnecessary and frankly unconstitutional demonetisation of currency. Decisions which are regressive and malignant.
Across the Atlantic, the Democrats face a similar fate. With The Donald as the leader of the free world, the Republicans have pushed the Democrats out of the race and are now willy-nilly drafting legislation which may, in the coming future, dent the country’s economic and political peace. After losing face and both Houses to the Republicans, the Democrats seem to be undergoing an existential crisis. Their ability to oppose is pitiable; with no real plan of action, the Democrats stand for nothing more than opposing Trump, but they don’t even do that well. What is even more appalling is that some Democrats may actively be colluding with Trump to destroy political thinking and expression. For example, if the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions bill is passed, it effectively broadly dismantles the first amendment and will expand the perception of terrorism to include peaceful political protesters. It is the inability of the Democrats to get anything done that frustrates the people. Even after seven months of the Trump presidency, Democrats have failed to oppose and debate the arbitrary laws being pushed by the Republicans. They fail to draw attention to relevant issues like Obamacare, the Muslim Immigration Ban, the looming North Korean crisis, the coal miners laws and so on. Their 2018 economic agenda is riddled with highly populist and liberal mainstream designs, heavy on idealism and ignorant of ground realities. In fact, former President Barack Obama has in the past criticised them as “coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, you know, politically correct, out-of-touch folks.”
At the end of the day, if we the people have chosen democracy as our political structure, at the very least we should ensure that it works. There is a need for greater political awareness. Citizens across all democracies must be aware of their rights, duties, and choices. Political thought and process in any democratic country should be dynamic. This is why the role of the opposition is vital for the well being of any democracy. They are the ones who ensure that the country’s civic consciousness prospers. As far as the Democrats in the USA and the Congress in India are concerned, they are in dire need of a structural overhaul. Both these parties need to take an electoral defeat seriously and look for internal reform of its aims, which might as well be an ideological reform. If these parties are defeated twice in succession, or even three times, the search for new ideas must become frantic, which obviously is a healthy development. Even if the loss of votes was not very great, the internalisation that reform is required should be unanimous. A democracy needs parties that are more sensitive and, if possible, constantly on the alert. Only in this way can they be induced to be self-critical.
Sadly, neither of these parties appears in the mood for any kind of reform. They are still eager to build the future on the relics of the past, which in itself is a dicey precedent to set, especially for the Congress. Over the years, the Bharatiya Janata Party has changed its approach significantly, which is why they have managed to thrive. A good example of this change is the public perception of Narendra Modi. Once accused of the communal violence in Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi has fundamentally changed the way he is perceived by people. The transition from a communalist to everybody’s beloved NaMo has been nothing short of exemplary, irrefutably proving that public memory is short-lived. The BJP recognized the power of social media early on and used it to their advantage. It is the rigidity of Congress among other things that cost them the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The situation they find themselves in today reminds me of the Janta Party post the 1980’s elections, when Indira Gandhi assumed power again even after the wanton destruction she caused to the country’s political machinery. The public was quick to accept her and she soon pushed the Janta party to the brink of extinction. Congress may endure a similar fate if in the coming election it refuses to reform. Even though our Prime Minister has proven to be a formidable leader, unchecked power tends to corrupt which, needless to say, could have devastating effects. It may plunge the country into a state of mobocracy, a glimpse of which can be seen today in the lynchings across the country.
I neither oppose the BJP nor favor the Congress, but I realise the value that open criticism holds, especially in a democratic construct. It is my right to agree or disagree, a healthy democracy enables me to my opinion. I criticise not because I hate or have a personal vendetta against a party, I reserve my right to criticism because it is my duty to. The looming sword of my questions is a must for the country’s democratic growth. By questioning the policies, laws, and mandates, I am actively taking part in the political process.
The author, Vidushi Kala, is a Senior Editor at Indus Dictum. Her work focuses on public policy and legal reform.
Tweet at Vidushi: @kala_masala