The Congress And Its Inherent Strength
Except when I am in New Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC), I hear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by the Congress will come a distant second to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on May 16, the day of the counting of the votes polled during the forthcoming general elections. In fact, overwhelming majority of my fellow-members at the IIC is confident of the UPA managing a third term with the support of “secular parties”. For them, BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is a monster. They argue, by citing various statistics, that Modi is destined to lose badly in Varanasi, that Arun Jaitley (leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha) will not be able to secure his deposits in Amritsar, that BJP president Rajnath Singh will lose narrowly in Lucknow and that the BJP at the most will get 150 seats. They all doubt the authenticity of various opinion polls that have been conducted by the professional agencies by saying that the so-called advantage of Modi in these polls is ‘sponsored’ by the corporate houses supporting the Gujarat Chief Minister. This is not all. The official establishment at the IIC is so sensitive to Modi that it has decided not to allow any “pro- Modi” event in its premises, something one author of a book that highlighted positive achievements of Modi discovered recently when the reservation for an event to mark the release of the book at the IIC was abruptly cancelled under the dubious plea that the book was not acceptable to the institution and its ethos.
Be that as it may, I am going by what the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, one of the shrewdest politicians of India, said the other day. According to him, Modi-led BJP will be the single largest party in the 16th Lok Sabha, ahead of the Congress. Even Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram has said that the Congress is an “underdog” in the coming elections. As I do not believe exactly in astrology, one cannot be hundred per cent certain that the Congress is going to lose, but there is a growing consensus that the party is going to sit in the opposition benches this time. If this will turn out to be the case on May 16, then, in my considered view, the Congressmen need not despair.
For one, despite an eventual loss, the Congress, as our cover stories this week reflect, will always remain a potent or premier political force. Secondly, and this is more important, the Congress can be not only a formidable but also a very constructive opposition in the Parliament, enlivening the Indian democracy.
As any student of politics knows, the role of a healthy parliamentary opposition is essential for the sound working of democracy. In the absence of a vigilant opposition constantly on the alert and ever watchful of the government’s policies and actions, the ruling party will either be complacent and tardy or become arbitrary and autocratic. In other words, the presence of a strong opposition is an obstacle to despotism. Always ready to expose the wrong committed by the government and to bring to light its acts of omission and commission, a healthy opposition ensures that the ruling partly can hardly afford to be negligent in the performance of its duty towards the country. It is in this context that Benjamin Disraeli had said: “No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition.”
In this context, I find it is worth mentioning famous American political scientist Robert Dahl. According to him, there are four main functions of the opposition: forming an alternate government given an opportunity; influencing the public opinion on vital national and international issues so as not to allow the ruling party to become lukewarm about the country’s basic interests; exposing the ruling party of its failures to fulfill the promises to the electorate; and extending full support and cooperation to the government on occasions that threaten the very unity and integrity of the country, such as external aggression, internal armed rebellion and ethnic unrest. I think, in India, no party is better suited to play these roles than the Congress in the eventuality of Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister.
Two points are particularly noteworthy in this context. First, an effective opposition, while opposing various acts of omission and commission of the government, acts responsibly and suggests the remedies and alternatives. In other words, it is vital that the opposition does not oppose just for the sake of the opposition. Its criticisms must be viable and responsible, since it is “government- in- waiting”. Secondly, and this is a corollary of the first point, it is not the business of the opposition to obstruct the government; its purpose is to criticise, not hinder. As the longest ruling party of the country, the Congress can realise this better than others.
Viewed against this backdrop, it is clearly understandable why in Britain, one hears of “Her majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The leader of the opposition in Britain not only acts as a public watchdog by keeping the actions of the government under scrutiny, but he or she provides an element of choice for the electorate by posing as an alternative Prime Minister at the head of an alternative government. This is the reason why the British opposition leader maintains a “shadow cabinet”. In India, we may not have the system of a shadow cabinet, but the essence of the principles of a constructive opposition is as true of India as of Britain.
In the United States, the situation is quite different. There are many oppositions in the US between the Republicans and Democrats, but their oppositions to one another are little different than the ones we see in Britain or for that matter in India. Many a time the Congressmen of both the parties vote together against the Presidential proposals and oppose his actions, even though the President belongs to one of them. Here the opposition actions are organised through two major parties which act in cooperation and competition in the Congress. However, we cannot imagine a situation when a Congress member can openly vote against and a BJP member votes for the policies of the Manmohan Singh government. It is unimaginable likewise that a BJP MP will go against and a Congress MP will welcome the decision of a future Modi government.
In a sense, the Indian system is unique, different from even the one in Britain. Unlike in Britain where the politics is dominated by two parties—Labour and Conservatives—here in India we have hundreds of parties, as a result of which we are increasingly seeing hung-Parliaments. Besides, in all the general elections held to the Parliament so far, it is noteworthy that the ruling party has never received 50 per cent of the votes polled. The nearest to the 50 per cent mark has been touched only once in the 8th general elections held in 1984 when the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi got 49.6 per cent of the votes polled. Predictably, he rode to power on a sympathy-wave, following the tragic assassination of his mother.
Otherwise, under the prevailing one-party dominant system since Independence, the Congress party came to power with popular votes that varied between 47.8 per cent in 1957 and 40.7 per cent in 1980. BJP came to power with 25.5 per cent votes in 1998 and 23.8 per cent votes in 1999, though that of the Congress vote share was 28.3 per cent. In other words, no ruling party in India can be arrogant enough to overlook the bitter reality that it is in government not because of the majority of votes that all Indian voters have cast in its favour but because of what I have written many a time–the non democratic first-past-the post system.
The second striking feature to note in Indian elections is that until the advent of the hung-Parliament in 1989, there had always been the fact that though the ruling party got minority of votes, the gap between it and the largest opposition was quite massive. As against the Congress’s 40-plus percentage of votes every time, the second largest parties happened to be Socialists (with varied names) with 10.6 per cent and 12.4 per cent votes in 1952 and 1957 elections, the then undivided Communists with 10 per cent in 1962 elections, Jana Sangh with 9.4 per cent in 1967 elections, the Congress (O) with 10.4 per cent in 1971 elections, the Janata Dal with 19 per cent in 1980 elections and the BJP with 7.7 per cent in 1984 elections. In fact, in 1984, the second largest party in the Lok Sabha after the Congress was a newly formed Telugu Desam.
However, it will be nothing sort of a miracle if the BJP is going to have such a massive advantage over the Congress in the coming elections as far as the shares of votes are concerned. The difference, if at all, will be that of a single digit between them. In fact, given the fact that the Congress, unlike the BJP, does have an all-India presence, its share of votes, as in 1999, may be more than that of the BJP and yet the party loses the elections. And if this is going to be the case, the Congress cannot be said to be just like yet another opposition party. It will be a special opposition party, which the BJP will ignore only at its peril. The Congress will always have the special capacity to bounce back strongly.
Thus, one can never rule out the possibility of Rahul Gandhi, the de facto supremo of the Congress, becoming India’s Prime Minister. The year 2014 may not be kind to him; but the subsequent years, particularly 2019, may not be so.
By Prakash Nanda