As a public policy student more than a decade ago during my time in Israel, I witnessed widespread farmer protests. These farmers were protesting the loss of land due to encroachments in the West Bank. These protests highlighted to me, the need for a structural Opposition for effectuating democratic rights of common people against the excesses of the government. Unfortunately, participation in such protests today could land me behind bars. And it makes me wonder whether this is the democracy we dreamt of as an independent India in 1947.
Democracy has come to mean the loudest voice and the strongest push, often pictured to be a bout between political parties. It is, however, not intended to be about making the government’s job easier or about making the Opposition more prominent. It is supposed to be about the people’s interests, which are best served in an accountable, transparent and responsible governance ecosystem. It is about the public and creating public good, whether it is achieved through executive action or through the Opposition amplifying concerns against the government – as long as the ends of public good are attained. That’s the essence of democracy – regardless of political gains or losses, it is the public good that is fostered and the public that benefits.
Democracy is about consensus and stakeholder involvement. Stakeholders have to be brought to the table to negotiate and to work out a consensus, a win-win formula. The intention must be to achieve consensus, because consensus has brought about advancement and kinship to the country rather than tearing it apart. Consensus has ensured that we extol ‘because of diversity’ rather than ‘in spite of diversity’. It has made the largest democracy in the world also the most vibrant one. A democracy cannot be vibrant if there is no consensus, if people don’t have a voice. There are countries in parts of the world which have only one dominant party, which cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be called vibrant democracies. We are a vibrant democracy because opposing views are given the space not just to exist, but to thrive and have meaningful consequence.
Recounting an example close to home, the Assam Accord of 1985 was preceded by rampant protests. But what differentiated that experience was the government’s inclination and willingness to reach a solution through stakeholder participation. Stakeholders were invited to the discussion and negotiation was initiated and pursued, finally leading to the Assam Accord of 1985. While protests remain an inevitable and desirable feature of democracies, the true hallmark of a healthy democracy lies in the treatment of such protestors, whether they are branded and disenfranchised or involved and included.
The Constituent Assembly debates provide for a recognised Opposition in the Parliament. It is interesting to note that the debates document the necessity of a recognised Opposition to legitimise criticism of the government. As a young independent nation, conditioned to salute the establishment, India needed a robust Opposition to make it a thriving democracy. It is critical, especially in today’s context, that the government realise its role as the government of a democracy and be willing to lose its rigid political character for public welfare.
To understand the meaning and role of Opposition today, it is imperative to look closely at the challenges it faces. India is witnessing a new era of power, where the narrative is driven by a cartel of those who wield influence. The government appears to be in a symbiotic relationship with the media and the corporate giants, where all actors seek to benefit from such a relationship. The government reinforces selective stories via media, muzzling the news that reports unfavourable events, while the media stands to increase TRPs by reporting exclusive news. Complementarily, the big industry drives government policies for its profit, often deprioritising issues like the environment and displacement of natives while the government employs them to propel their narrative. Such a relationship could be used for public welfare, but is instead exploited only for electoral gains.
To effectively respond to this echo chamber of the mighty, the idea of Opposition needs to go beyond the traditional understanding. It needs to include all actors on the spectrum- the civil society, digital media, academia and courts, the reflection of which was visible in the nation’s protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. Millions of people took to the streets in voicing their discontentment across the length and breadth of the country. While the Opposition made itself heard in the Parliament, the civil society and academia also marked their dissent. Social media was pivotal in reaching out to the masses and provided a wider platform for engagement on the cause. This collective effort will be key to diversifying Opposition.
In the current political context, the Opposition is tasked with taking on cartelised intimidation and expanding threat by the government. It has therefore, become necessary for the Opposition to take greater risks and converge its energies. While a grand alliance is not necessary, the Opposition should hold out an olive branch and move beyond running down each other. It should aim for increased public awareness- channelizing its resources in informing the public of the big government’s ploy and intensifying dictatorial regime. It is paramount that the Opposition rally for the people’s rights- amplifying the people’s voices and creating awareness to facilitate informed choice.
For our democracy to function effectively, it is essential for the Opposition to think outside the box in responding to executive outreach. The government’s proclivity to authoritarianism necessitates an assertive Opposition, one that is focused on creating public awareness and tempering the government’s arbitrary outlook, while also ideating solutions to new-age problems.