MPs facing the Treasury benches are not the only ‘Opposition’, in a democracy. They are crucial, irrespective of their numbers. But they are one among those that use the right of free speech to show the government of the day where it is wrong, where it is in error and where it should change course. Anointed to perform their oppositional role they are yet one among but not the only ones or even the principal ones, to be doing so.
Post the elections just concluded, the modest-sized democratic Opposition in Parliament should be seen as one of the instruments of critical alertness among many others. These may be enumerated as procedural, institutional and individual.
In the first category come procedures of public redress.
These include public interest litigation (PIL), the building of public opinion and public protests.
Of these the PIL must, in our country, stand foremost. Addressed to the judiciary as it is, the PIL is still a means of securing relief in the public domain which the executive presides over. And as such it has a role that goes beyond litigation. The PIL is a course-corrector and a pattern-layer that must be used wherever it can be, by individuals and by organisations, to differential effect. In a democracy, especially in one where the ruling party enjoys a very large percentage of seats in the legislature, the PIL is a powerful means of intervention in the exercise of executive powers sanctioned by Parliament. Unmotivated by personal interests, the PIL serves to remind the judiciary of its powers of disinterested intervention and the executive of the boundaries to its authority. Retired judges and legal dignitaries must, in a robust democracy, help the citizen look upon the PIL not as ‘a frustrated idler’s crossword’ but a wronged right’s medicine to health.
In the building of public opinion, who can play a greater role than the unbiased media? Here I have the print media in mind. Because of its visual form, the media of the large and small screens stimulate reactions, not reflection. ‘Social media’ too because of its intravenous work, lives in the minute of occurrence rather than in the hour of understanding. The print media, including the printed page’s electronic twin, plays a steadier role. The editorial page leaves the reader to decide, rather like a lawyer does with the judge, if what it has said is fair and true, and needs to be heard with respect. The Indian media’s role just as the Emergency was clamped in 1975 is something which not just the media but India has to be proud of. Before its voice was muzzled it said its piece with dare. And during the months of censorship, its silence broke the silence.
Public protests are an octopus with many moving arms. But the ones that take up issues, not attitudes, cause not predispositions, make a huge difference. Gheraos once had an impact but repetition robbed them of appeal. Bandhs and michhils (Bangla for street processions), likewise. And fasts, public and publicity-hungry, have lost all meaning now. They have become a laughing stock with the public. New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, like Hyde Park in London, has an iconic draw which must not be used too often or too lightly. Public protests are an instrument of such moment that they must be protected not just from the zulum of the State but from that of their architects as well. Political parties and NGOs must re-visit their style of public protests to redeem them from leaders’ whimsies and followers’ overzealous overdrives. Slogans are in keeping with protests but must come from the mind, not lungs, from thought, not emotion. I must say here that the diligent and disciplined method of non-violent public protests honed in Rajasthan, which led to the Right to Information Act (RTI), is a model to follow and respect.
Institutional opposition is more about institutions than about opposing but has become a vital means of correction. It has become available largely as a result of public opinion building and public protests. Its most important and most widely valued form today is the institution of the RTI and of RTI’s Information Commissioners. If there is one abbreviation that is known across the length and breadth of India, it is ‘RTI’. The illiterate know it, the literate know it. The poor use it, the rich use it. That someone of the veracity of Wajahat Habibullah headed the early years of that institution augurs well for its continuing efficacy. It is vital that the RTI be not allowed to go blunt either by the way it is used or by the way it is administered. The Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commission, open as they are to public communications, are also vital parts of the architecture of what might be called institutional ‘correctioning’. But the most important of all institutions of correctioning is yet to emerge. And history will credit Anna Hazare for bringing this anti-corruption medicament out of the crib-burial it had been given. The Lokpal will out-institution all these institutions by the stature it commands and the accountability it enforces. Lokayuktas have set the pace, the Lokpal must crown the anticipation. The first Lokpal must be a person of stature on whose name there can be no disagreement, no discussion, no debate. She or he must personify the nation’s conscience.
Individuals, public-spirited individuals who do not hesitate to speak out, will remain the nation’s most ‘loyal’ opposition — loyal not to the State but to the nation. Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre were never elected to Parliaments. Noam Chomsky is not a member of the US Congress, nor is Joan Baez. Aung San Suu Kyi, denied her place in Myanmar’s Parliament, became all the more invincible. C Rajagopalachari was never elected to the Lok Sabha nor was Periyar EV Ramasami. Jayaprakash Narayan was never an MP. But their individual opposition was more powerful than any MPs’ group could be.
Opposition is about more than seats in Parliament.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is former administrator, diplomat and governor. He is currently senior Fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal