Role of Opposition in a Democracy

JUL 26

Mains   > Polity   >   Parliament   >   Parliamentary Procedures

IN NEWS:

  • Recently, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) lamented the lack of adequate space for the opposition in the nation’s political scenario. He also opined that political opposition translating into hostility is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

WHAT IS PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION?

  • Parliamentary opposition is a form of political opposition to a designated government, particularly in a Westminster-based parliamentary system.
  • The opposition is formed by the largest party or coalition of parties that does not have the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives.
  • The opposition is sometimes called the alternative government because it could form government if it was to win the support of the majority of members.
  • In Britain, the main opposition party is formally known as Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition or the Official Opposition and the leader of this party takes the title of Leader of the Opposition. It demonstrates the importance that is assigned to the role of opposition parties in a democracy.
  • In India, official opposition designates the political party which has secured the second largest number of seats in either upper or lower houses. To get formal recognition in either upper or lower houses, the concerned party must have at least 10% of the total strength of the house.

ROLE OF THE OPPOSITION IN DEMOCRACY:

  • Works as a watchdog of public interests:
    • Opposition works as a watchdog of public interests in a democracy and criticizes the policies and programs of the government which they think are not in consonance with the public good.
    • But the opposition should not oppose for the sake of opposition but should work for constructive opposition for the common good of the public.
  • Works as a check on the powers of the government:
    • The opposition parties keep a watch over the government to prevent it from becoming authoritarian and to restrict its powers.
    • The opposition will expose misuse of powers, misdemeanours and financial irregularities, and generate public pressure for prompt action against the guilty.
  • Acts as the voice of the people in parliament:
    • Opposition in fact acts as the real voice of the people and the society.
    • They carry the suggestions of the civil society to the parliament and the government at the centre.
  • Safeguards democracy and constitutional provisions:
    • An active and constructive opposition is the best guarantee of a functional and healthy democracy.
    • Without an effective Opposition, democracy will become dull and legislature will become submissive.
    • It imposes caution on the government against despotic tendencies through public awareness.
    • It ensures that the government follows the provisions of the Constitution in letter and spirit, thereby looking after the interests of all segments of the population.
  • Reminding the ruling party of the promises made to the electorate:
    • Regular scrutiny of the executive’s functioning and constant questioning helps a vigilant opposition in constantly reminding the ruling party of the promises made to the electorate while seeking votes.
    • An alert opposition is the best preventive antidote to governmental slackness and complacence.

ISSUES WITH THE FUNCTIONING OF INDIA'S PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION

  • Diminishing role of parliamentary committees:
    • The diminishing role of parliamentary committees in recent years has been a major concern in the effective functioning of the opposition in the legislature, as the participation of members of the opposition in various parliamentary committees is important for constructive criticism in the law-making process.
    • PRS legislative research shows that during the 16th Lok Sabha, 25% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees, much lower than 71% and 60% in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively.
  • Decline in parliamentary questions and debates:
    • The parliamentary questions and debates with the active participation of the opposition are important for the government to take note of the concerns of the public.
    • But there has been a decrease in the debates and questions in the parliament in recent times.
    • In fact, in the 16th Lok Sabha more than 80% of the budget was passed without discussion.
  • Opposition parties limited to specific social groups and a few identities:
    • The opposition parties are suffering from a crisis where they are stuck with clustered forms of representativeness limited to some specific social groups and are unable to extend this umbrella beyond a few identities.
  • Failure to set the political agenda:
    • A key failure of the opposition parties in recent times has been their failure to set the political agenda and persuade fence-sitters to their side.
    • This is reflected in their inability to corner the government on its numerous failures.
    • This prompted civil society organisations and various interest groups, such as farmers, to take to the streets to protest government failures.
  • Regional parties without national presence:
    • A number of regional parties clearly have an interest in leading the opposition nationally, but most of these regional parties don’t have much of a constituency outside of their home states.
  • Absolute majority of ruling party:
    • Absolute majority for the ruling party in the legislature is a major reason for the decline in the role of the parliamentary procedures and committees.
    • Absolute majority also renders internal criticism or accountability toothless.
    • Elections, fought under charismatic leadership, render elected members of the legislature powerless when the ruling party is in absolute majority.

WAY FORWARD:

  • Need to revive and reconstitute opposition parties:
    • There is a need to revive and reconstitute parties in villages, blocks and districts as opposed to dictating from the top.
    • The opposition parties require a sustained perennial campaign and mobilisation as opposed to occasional press conferences and customary rallies during elections.
  • Shadow cabinets:
    • In the Westminster style of democracy that India follows, forming a shadow cabinet would strengthen the democracy.

‘Shadow cabinet’

  • ‘Shadow cabinet’ is a unique institution of the British cabinet system. It is formed by the opposition party to balance the ruling cabinet and to prepare its members for future ministerial office.
  • In this shadow cabinet, almost every member in the ruling cabinet is ‘shadowed’ by a corresponding member in the opposition cabinet.
  • This shadow cabinet serves as the ‘alternate cabinet’ if there is change of government.
  • That is why Ivor Jennings described the leader of Opposition as the ‘alternative Prime Minister’. He enjoys the status of a minister and is paid by the government.
  • There is no such institution in India.

CONCLUSION:

  • As CJI NV Ramana said, the diversity of opinion enriches the polity and society, and strengthening parliamentary democracy demands strengthening the Opposition as well.

PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q. “Strengthening parliamentary democracy demands strengthening the Opposition as well”. Discuss.