In times of crisis, the role of the Opposition| Opinion
In exceptional times such as these, the role of the Opposition changes somewhat. It has to begin with the premise that the government’s intent is noble. But this does not mean it has to support each measure; instead it should remain vigilant and provide constant feedbackUpdated: Apr 18, 2020 19:20 IST
At a press conference on Thursday, Congress Member of Parliament, and former party president, Rahul Gandhi spoke about the coronavirus pandemic — and India’s efforts to tackle it. Keeping aside the substance of his intervention for now, the most important point that Gandhi made was this was not a moment to fight. He underlined that he had many differences with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, but this was not the time to get into these; instead, it was the time to unite and fight a common enemy, the virus.
Gandhi’s statement echoes the general tone adopted by Opposition leaders across the spectrum. Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, on the morning of April 14, before the PM announced the extension of the lockdown, gave a speech thanking health care workers and those providing services in these times. Chief ministers, who are in the frontline of the battle, have had a similar approach. They have demands and grievances; they would like the Centre to do more; but at the core of it, they have been collaborative and have let Modi take the lead, and the Centre determine the broad policy line, despite health being a state subject.
To be fair, this has also been the approach of the leadership of the ruling party and the central government. Bharatiya Janata Party president JP Nadda thanked Sonia Gandhi for her speech — and enquired about her health. Modi has now had three separate video conferences with chief ministers — the last one spanning over four hours — where he has carefully listened to their interventions. And in his public speeches, he has repeatedly acknowledged the role of all state governments in this battle against the pandemic.
To be sure, there may be underlying differences in approach. But it is important to note that this is a rare moment Ain Indian democracy, which is otherwise marked by constant arguments, rancour, squabble, battles, and bitter contestations. The gravity of the crisis is such that, notwithstanding the barbs exchanged every day by the social media warriors of differing persuasions on Twitter, there is a spirit of cooperation that is unprecedented in recent times.
This, then, brings us to what the role of the Opposition should be? In normal times, in any democracy, especially in a parliamentary democracy like India, the Opposition’s job is to ruthlessly critique the government, point to gaps in each policy decision, speak up for those who are not being heard in decision-making, mobilise both grassroots and elite opinion against the ruling dispensation, and eventually, through elections, displace the party in power and win a democratic mandate.
But in exceptional times such as these, the role of the Opposition changes somewhat. It has to begin with the premise that the government’s intent is noble — that even if there is political rivalry, those who are exercising State power want to help the country overcome the challenge posed by the pandemic. This faith in intent has to be supplemented by cooperation, for it is only when the political class in a united manner takes on a challenge — across federal units — that there can be a commonality in the action plan and the implementation of it. This has indeed happened. The Opposition has supported the lockdown announced by the PM; there is also a broad consensus about the methods to be adopted to battle the pandemic — from testing to identifying hotspots and containment zones, from the importance of social distancing to increasing isolation and quarantine facilities, from providing relief to the poor to redressing the economic slowdown.
But beyond that, the Opposition’s job is not to go along with each government measure or action. It has to, while being supportive, critique the government if it is falling short, in a careful and calibrated manner, by remaining constructive, and not adversarial.
This, too, has happened in three broad areas. One, despite experts consistently pointing to the need for greater testing as a way to identify the spread of the infection, the government was initially slow, although it has increased testing now. But the Opposition has been right in pointing to this gap and chief ministers have been right in identifying the lack of testing kits as a pressing need. This has pushed the government to do more.
Two, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health workers has been a gap in India’s response. Here, too, the Opposition — along with civil society — has increased the pressure, legitimately, on the government to deliver. It has given voice to frontline warriors in this battle. India is still short of requirements, but PPEs today are recognised as an issue.
Third, the Opposition has played an important role in pointing to the economic misery caused by the lockdown. This is, once again, the collective responsibility of all governments. But given the role of the Centre, its wider jurisdiction, and the resources at its command, it is primarily the duty of New Delhi — not state capitals — to come up with measures. The government has announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for the marginalised. But this is not enough — not enough to ensure the viability of businesses; keep up employment; restore supply chains; augment demand, and help sectors which are in acute crisis such as tourism, aviation, hospitality, micro, medium and small enterprises, among others. The Opposition has raised this issue consistently, though one could argue that it needs to do so more effectively.
The crisis is not just a test for the government. It is also a test for the Opposition. So far, it has done well — by remaining supportive, yet giving constructive feedback. It must remain vigilant, while recognising that this is not the time for political point-scoring. The government would do well to reciprocate, and not try to take political advantage of the situation either. That will show Indian democracy and federalism at its best.