A basic, non-negotiable principle of a modern democracy is that a political party elected on the basis of free, fair and fearless competitive elections with a majority of legislators forming the government and a legally and politically recognised opposition party of the minority of legislators having the right to oppose it.
This is well respected and well recognised in Britain, where the opposition is formally designated Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and in the United States the president is held accountable by minority parties in Congress.
The post-independence experiment of a highly competitive political party system had always witnessed — except in the Emergency of 1975-77 — the role of the Opposition.
The period from the beginning of the 1990s to May 2004 was when the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha always met visiting foreign dignitaries for exchanging ideas on national and international policies and programmes pursued and followed by the government.
These meetings conveyed a clear message around the globe that India was a functioning democracy in which the right to dissent and criticise was considered fundamental as shown by the open and unrestrained functioning of a recognised Opposition party in the Lok Sabha.
The first Lok Sabha Speaker, GV Mavalankar, in a particular context had said an opposition party with 10% of elected seats will get the “official status of Opposition” and the BJP-led government has used it to the hilt to deny the Congress that position.
If the BJP’s technical argument of 10% is to be taken at face value, it deserves to be stated that it is forgetting “The Provisions of the Salaries and Allowances of Leader of Opposition in Parliament Act in 1977”.
Not only this. This century has created situations in which the government has to ‘legally’ consult the Leader of the Opposition while selecting a) central vigilance commissioner and central vigilance commission members, b) the chief information commissioner, c) the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, d) the members of the National Human Rights Commission and e) secretary general of the Lok Sabha.
The law for the creation of the National Commission for Judicial Appointments mandates that the leader of the Opposition or the largest opposition party will be associated with the six-member selection commission. Did these legal provisions and requirements exist during the formative years of Indian parliamentary democracy?
The argument in favour of 10% membership is to keep the Congress away from playing any critical role in important decision-making processes.
It deserves to be stated that Narendra Modi for a long time as chief minister of Gujarat prevented the appointment of the lokayukta. Can this government be trusted to fight corruption in public life by having no Leader of the Opposition in the process of selecting the Lokpal under the Act of 2013?
The government seems determined to bend the rules and regulations and procedures of governance by bypassing every system of institutional checks and balances and manipulating political institutions. Arun Shourie, who should know the BJP leadership better, in an interview described Modi’s approach to governance as “quasi-presidential”.
This current political situation has led Congress president Sonia Gandhi to say: “It is our task to play the role of a vigilant opposition ... and resist the authoritarian and sectarian tendencies of the new government as it tries to get its way in Parliament.”
This is the real political concern for a large number of citizens of India.
For the BJP, the only obstacle in the way of steamrolling its majoritarian policies is an officially recognised Opposition party that can expose the government’s intentions. This is the essence of its strategy to “isolate” the Congress in the Lok Sabha and patronise fragmented regionalists.
If the Opposition is marginalised in Parliament, India will have ‘democracy without dissent’.
(CP Bhambhri is a former professor of political science at JNU. The views expressed here are personal.)