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A way for the Congress to come out of the shadow

The UPA will have to be rather creative if it wants to play a meaningful role in the new Lok Sabha. Instead of an obstructionist role, it could think of playing a more strategic one, writes Sanjoy Narayan.

columns Updated: Jun 01, 2014 11:50 IST

If the six days since the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his team took charge are any indication, this government appears to mean business.

And while Modi’s workaholic-like daily schedule shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his hyperactive election campaign or observed his governing style as chief minister of Gujarat, there is probably an element of leading by example that he wants to demonstrate as much to his own team of ministers and bureaucrats as to the public at large. In any case, it’s been less than a week, which is way too short a period to judge the new government by.

What could be interesting is to see how the BJP-led NDA with 336 members and the Congress-led UPA with 59 members play out their roles in the new Lok Sabha, particularly the latter, which had the privilege of sitting on the Treasury benches for 10 years but will now have to move to the Opposition as a greatly diminished force.

Read: It cannot be all in the family for the Congress

With a mere 44 seats on its own, the Congress is the biggest opposition party but its leader in the Lok Sabha may not qualify as an official leader of the Opposition, a status that requires a party to have at least 10% of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha. That doesn’t constrain the party from having a leader in the House or play its role, along with its allies, as the lead Opposition group. But with the drastically reduced numbers, what kind of role could the new Opposition play?

First, here’s what it can’t do. In the five years that the UPA2 was in power, the BJP-led NDA Opposition had 141 seats to the ruling UPA’s 234. With those numbers, the NDA could block resolutions, disrupt discussions, walk out during sessions and, in general, corner a larger share of the noise. In 2009-14, nearly 40% of the Lok Sabha’s working hours was rendered unproductive, courtesy primarily the Opposition, and the number of bills passed was the lowest that any full-term Lok Sabha has passed. Now, with just 59 members, the new Opposition would be hamstrung to do anything like that — a walkout or voting against any move would have limited impact. And a ruling coalition with 336 members will have immense clout. So what could the new Opposition do?

To begin with, instead of an obstructionist role, it could think of playing a more strategic one. In India, unlike in Britain’s Westminster system and several other countries, Parliament doesn’t have the concept of a shadow cabinet, where senior members of the Opposition mark each member of the real cabinet by specialising in each of their portfolios, critiquing the government’s agenda as well as offering alternatives. But what stops the new Opposition from doing this in an informal manner? The Congress and its allies could take a cue from the Left parties, which have sat in Opposition much longer and whose senior members are individually known to take up specific subjects for interventions, debates and criticism.

Read: First past the post – Congress is the main beneficiary

The Congress-led Opposition could begin by focusing only on the ministries that comprise the cabinet committee on security — the prime minister’s office, the home ministry, finance, defence and external affairs. Individuals from the Opposition could be earmarked for such ‘shadow’ roles and instead of a disruptive role the Opposition could play that of a constructive critic.

In theory all of this sounds quite clever. In practice, there is a small problem: Who? The decimated size of the Congress in Parliament has left it with few members who have the experience or the bandwidth to tackle the task of being a strategic Opposition. Sadly, most of its more competent former ministers, with the exception of a handful, have either lost the elections or chosen not to contest them. In Opposition, the UPA will have to be rather creative if it wants to play a meaningful role in the new Lok Sabha.

Read: Congress still divided on leader of Opposition