The second year of any government is a tough one. With the honeymoon period over and the waning lustre of electoral victory, the public starts to demand some measure of accountability of its elected leaders. A responsible government honours this legitimate expectation and holds itself up to scrutiny.
If, however, the ruling party is unable to live up to the high expectations created, then a counter narrative is sought to be produced — of shifting goalposts and assigning blame. The creation of such a narrative was on display as the last Parliament session concluded. Not only was such an abdication embarrassing for a party that enjoys an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, it illustrated an inability to achieve consensus on key issues. But above all else, it became clear that there lies a more sinister attempt to undermine democratic institutions.
As the single-largest party in Opposition, the Congress benefits from a functioning Parliament because it allows it to voice crucial issues before the nation. There were several uncomfortable queries on the agenda that we never got the opportunity to raise. These related to consistently falling exports, slow progress of the Make in India programme, discrepancies in passing on the benefit of historically low oil prices to the common man, unprecedented price rise of food items and a gloomy outlook for trade and business. All remained unasked due to a non-functioning Parliament. The Opposition thrives during a functioning Parliament — an inept government doesn’t.
Separately, the Union finance minister in a recent online offering sought to school the Congress on how ‘India legislates’. We would welcome the lesson because how India legislates under the BJP government is indeed very different from the governments of the past. The favourite legislative tool of this government is the ordinance.
But, beyond the smokescreen of propaganda, we must recognise a few fundamental truths:
First, the non-passage of laws such as the Goods and Services Tax Bill was the result of a surprisingly opaque approach to not engaging with the Opposition. The Congress made it a point to share its position, in terms free of jargon, with the common man through all available media. Yet they were dismissed as irrelevant. Perhaps, the concerns flagged by the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the RSS took greater precedence, both of whom have their own misgivings with regard to the GST. Blaming the Congress for the non-passage of the law offers the government a convenient via media for serving the will of its political masters while saving face.
Second, the BJP government dedicated much time to lofty speeches celebrating their reverence to the values enshrined in the Constitution and the memory of stalwarts such as BR Ambedkar. Two days were spent lauding the ideas on which Indian democracy rests. Yet all of these celebrations were reduced to little more than acts of political theatre by the government’s actions in Arunachal Pradesh, where it intervened through the office of the governor to destabilise a democratically elected government. The BJP government undermined its own credibility with no help required from the Opposition.
Third, this government has made several attempts to dilute laws arguably against the public interest. The whistleblowers law was amended to restrict the categories that could claim protection, a pro-corporate policy on Net Neutrality was proposed, the law on acquisition was amended by an ordinance to strip farmers of protections granted under a 2013 law, etc. These were opposed by the Congress with a high measure of success and on the floor of Parliament. In other words, it seems the Congress takes advantage of functioning sessions while the government does not.
In this day and age, consent and opinion can no longer be manufactured. For an issue to survive, it must resonate with the public. Therefore, if an issue sticks, the government must acknowledge it, not as the creation of a particular party, but as an issue worth remedying or addressing.
When Parliament convened for the first time after the NDA government had been sworn in last year, there were serious doubts raised as to the ability of the Congress to function as an effective Opposition given the number of seats it occupied in the Lok Sabha. These concerns were compounded by the decision of the government to deny the Congress recognition as the Leader of the Opposition.
Regardless of formal recognition, the Congress could not allow the institution of the Opposition to be weakened. During the last 19 months, the Congress has made an earnest attempt to emerge as a transparent and credible Opposition, both within and outside of Parliament. This emergence is a commentary on not just the failings of the government, but also of the revival of the national party and its determination to reconnect with the people.
The Congress has taken on its role and responsibilities as an Opposition with the utmost diligence and humility. We hope the government too profits from the example.
Randeep Singh Surjewala is media incharge, All India Congress Committee
The views expressed are personal