For the functioning and evolution of a parliamentary democracy, a constructive Opposition is as important as a strong government. How often do we hold an Opposition to account?

In another month, Indian Parliament will extend a green carpet welcome to denizens of the country's 16th Lok Sabha. There will be oaths and affirmations taken, portfolios traded, and ministries occupied. The 'winners' will radiate a self-congratulatory glow, the losers will play blame game and, hopefully, reflect. But where will we, the common voters, stand? Will our electoral commitment have reached a climax?

Over the past two months, our approach remained many-splendored as we tried evaluating our options to select our representatives. However, following the formation of a new legislature, our focus will shift to the winning side, the ruling side. The Parliament, unless it is a hung assembly, will be headed by a new executive — in all probabilities a coalition. How about the other side, without which the legislature will be incomplete, the Opposition?

True, we do need the winning party, the winning coalition to get on with governance immediately. However, to make sure that it focuses on the core issues, we also need a strong Opposition. Will the Opposition stand up to the task assigned to it by us, holding the government to account? How effective will it be in that? Or, similar to the outgoing Parliament, will the Opposition adopt an adversarial approach and force the media and the civil society to step into the vacuum?

Our previous Lok Sabha, the 15th one since we became independent, was guilty of the worst performance in more than 50 years. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition was perhaps the most tainted and unscrupulous alliance to have governed our nation. However, placing the entire blame on it would not suffice. It is also necessary question the Opposition's lackadaisical approach in performing its core function — providing constructive criticism.

This analysis gives an honest evaluation of the Parliament's performance. In the five years of its functioning — in essence the taxpayers’ time invested on it — the Lok Sabha utilised only 61 per cent of the total time allocated, compared to 91 per cent and 87 per cent utilised by the 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas respectively.

Not just that, even the Upper House, the Rajya Sabha, functioned for only 66 per cent of the allocated time. Since the Winter Session of 2010, which was washed out thanks to recalcitrance on the part of both the government and the Opposition, Lok Sabha worked for only 52 per cent of the allotted working hours and the Rajya Sabha for 55 per cent.

One might argue that the disruptions were legitimate. The previous dispensation was found responsible for unconscionable scams. Had the UPA yielded to the Opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into 2G scam, Winter Session 2010 would have been saved.

However, a counter-argument can be: Aren’t there some core concerns the Lok Sabha needs to address, responsibilities it needs to carry out irrespective of scams happening and probes demanded? Doesn't the very basic functioning of our country depend on a sound Lok Sabha? Isn’t our Parliament too valuable an institution to be held hostage to inquiries on individual scams demanded by an unyielding Opposition?

Once we elect our MPs, we expect them to debate issues out on the floor of the house rather than stalling the house to demand inquiry into any one issue. True, the taxpayer incurred astronomical losses due to scams such as 2G and coal allocation. True, the Opposition had reasons to feel short changed. However, had it treated the confines of Lok Sabha as the democratic space within which it could sort out differences, unearth scams and bring accountability, rather than a medium to be used to disrupt, destruct and thereby desecrate that very space, it would have been worthy of the common man’s attention rather than just the elite media’s scrutiny.

In fact, we can’t be completely faulted for having a hypothesis that: If the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) calculates the time lost due to disruption and attaches a notional value to it, the loss will be no less than that incurred due to the 2G scam. This notional loss could well be phrased as ‘Lok Sabha collective disruption scam.'

Legislative fiasco

In a parliamentary democracy, the legislature, among the three pillars, reigns supreme. Citizens hope that they will get to see quality debates, discussions and passage of bills, on the issues highlighted in parties’ manifestos, in Common Minimum Programmes and also those pending from the previous terms.

When we consider the outgoing LS’s performance, it falls short even in this respect. Out of the 328 bills which were introduced to be considered and passed, only 179 were passed — the least number of bills passed by a Lok Sabha functioning for a full five-year term. For comparison, in the previous two Lok Sabhas, 297 and 248 bills, respectively, were passed.

Not just that, 36 per cent of the bills passed were debated for less than 30 minutes. Of this, 20 were debated for less than five minutes. Compare this with the time our contestants spent on the podium rousing voters, attempting to win them to their side or criticising an opponent once the campaigning for the ongoing elections began.

Sixty bills pending at the end of the 15th Lok Sabha have lapsed, this means they will have to be re-introduced, taking up considerable energy on the part of the incoming executive. These cover such important topics like judicial appointments, higher education, and, ironically, corruption.

The UPA is on its way out, not as much due to positive campaigning by any major political force as it poor executive performance in the last five years. However, in our democracy, executive forms only one part of the legislature. And culpability for legislative failure has to be borne by all the 540+ members, not just the executive.

But we as voters are used to spending more time on laying blame at an individual’s or a party’s door. We hardly develop the inclination to honestly evaluate our legislators’ performance.

One reason for this could be the winner-takes-all mentality ingrained into our psyche. If the winner-takes-all, he also gobbles-all. When we feel short-changed, we’ll instinctively blame the incumbent.

But, is the incumbent the only part of the Parliament?

Perils of first-past-the-post

The first-past-the-post system we adopted makes sure that the candidate getting the highest percentage of votes emerges victorious, with the votes cast by the rest not getting the due they deserve. Hence, a candidate can win gaining 30 per cent of vote share; this, even though above 50 per cent of the population in a given constituency may have voted against him. As reputed scholar Anand Teltumbde brilliantly posits here, it is perhaps time to re-consider the modus operandi to elect our representatives. Perhaps we need to switch to a proportional representation system, which will get parties elected based on the vote share they gain rather than choosing individual candidates based on their ephemeral popularity.

Our exclusive focus on the ruling front makes us neglect the other dimension, the Opposition, which I feel is partly because of the winner-takes-all mentality fostered by our first-past-the-post system. In the present-era of coalition governments, where alliances function more by consensus on issues between different parties rather than machismo displayed by any one party, wafer-thin majorities are the norm rather than the an exception. Hence, functioning of a government cannot be evaluated independent of the functioning of an Opposition.

I cannot emphasise the point made in this piece enough that elections are a democratic exercise not only to elect a strong government but also to choose a credible Opposition.

Majoritarian monsters

What happens in the absence of an intelligent Opposition? We get either a very weak or an unconscionably majoritarian government. We have experienced weak governments collapsing in the absence of a credible majority as well as majoritarian governments taking the form of Frankenstein monsters. We had weak governments — their strength determined by unreliable allies — headed by V. P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar in the post-Mandal phase; and those by H.D. Dewe Gowda and I.K. Gujral in the post-Narasimha Rao phase.

To consider examples of majoritarian governments, we need to go back to the mid 1970s, when Indira Gandhi converted her majority into a sledgehammer and, following the imposition of Emergency, almost changed the Constitution through the 42nd amendment. Then, there was the Rajiv Gandhi government of the mid 80s, having a four-fifth majority, whose parliamentary strength became an albatross around its neck by the time it completed its term.

These scenarios are undesirable at a time when corruption is the raging issue and good governance and strong constitutional measures are the requirement. We need a strong Opposition to prevent concentration of power in a single individual or a single party, an Opposition that makes its presence felt not through misuse of privileges but one that acts as a caretaker to safeguard our democratic principles and constructively contribute to the legislative processes.

Are we, as voters, well-informed to elect such candidates?

Campaigning prior to the vote plays a major role in moulding our inclination to vote in a particular direction and it is safe to assume that contestants display a glimpse of their real self during campaign speeches. And it would also not be entirely wrong to assume that their rhetoric will ultimately spill onto their performance in Parliament. In that regard, our campaigns have always been marked by ill-will, acrimony and vituperative.

Rabble-rousing statements made on violence against women, on minorities and, most recently, on political dissent, are unbecoming of the world's largest democracy. Wouldn’t such speeches congeal into behavior on the floor of the house with incidents like trigger-happy members hijacking the well of the house to indicate displeasure; not allowing a member to speak when he/she presents her stand; or, the worst case scenario: using physical violence to disrupt the Parliament’s functioning?

Electoral sophistry vs. discretionary sophistication

These are things we need to evaluate, not just when we elect our representatives, but also later, when they debate, discuss and legislate in Parliament. Channels like Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are doing a great job in bringing the legislature to our drawing rooms to enable us conduct a daily performance appraisal. We need to make use of them, to not only check the ruling coalition’s performance but also check if a constructive Opposition enables healthy functioning of the Parliament rather than riding roughshod over the painstaking efforts put in by our Founding Fathers and latter day visionaries in ensuring that our democracy is kept alive and kicking.

A well-informed friend of mine, one who is following the country’s political situation very closely, says that compared to many previous elections, the campaign and pre-election manoeuvring this time has been marked by a high degree of sophistication, indicated by reprimands issued to erring speakers like Amit Shah and Azam Khan and this will be reflected when the Parliament gets formed.

He also feels that for the first time since independence, we are witnessing issue-based debates rather than polarisation in the name of caste and religion, a healthy sign for our democracy’s future. For this, he credits awareness campaigns by both the mainstream media and alternate avenues.

He unintentionally quotes Alexis de Tocqueville when he says that a Parliament is only as good as the society. The more well-informed our vote is, the better-performing our Parliament will be.

In that regard, I find it baffling that political parties, in their manifestoes, never indicate the role they’ll play if they sit in the Opposition. Is that due to fear of failure? If yes, doesn’t that reflect ignorance on their part when it comes to our Constitution and our Parliament? Or is it simply a case of them considering the election a zero-sum game rather than a process which elects a legislature which is require to collectively keep our democratic machinery, not just our electoral machinery going? Tough questions, but time has come to hold our representatives to give us answers on these.