Democracy is most conveniently defined by the nature of governance. There is nothing wrong with such a definition except that it tends to distract attention from a vital element of democracy: the Opposition. Without an Opposition there can be no democracy. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that governance in a democracy proceeds on the basis of discussion and understanding between the party in power and the party in Opposition. Perhaps this is the reason why in the mother of democracies, the Opposition is often referred to as the “shadow cabinet”. Democracy always holds out the possibility of today’s Opposition becoming tomorrow’s government. This apart, the idea of democratic governance becomes meaningless if decisions are always taken or legislations passed through the force of majority. Majoritarianism is not a synonym for democracy.
These observations are relevant in the context of what has happened in the Indian Parliament in the last few days. Both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha passed a handful of important bills after discussion and debate. The smooth passage of these bills was in sharp contrast to the more familiar scenes witnessed in Parliament where members disrupt proceedings by shouting or by rushing to the well. This was made possible because of an initiative taken by the government, led by the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to have meetings and discussions with leaders of the main Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was something new and desirable. In the past, the Congress has always kept the BJP at an arm’s length. Key figures in the Congress leadership felt that sitting across a table with the BJP leadership to carry out discussions and negotiations would be akin to compromising the Congress’s secular credentials. The assumption of such a holier-than-thou attitude was often at the root of deadlocks in Parliament and the waste of valuable time and money. The advantages of the parleys were evident in the last few days when Parliament functioned without disruption to pass important bills.
There is no denying that between the Congress and the BJP there exist some critical areas of difference. Almost all these emanate from the issue of secularism. These differences notwithstanding, there are some areas of broad agreement. These are largely to do with matters relating to specific economic reforms. The BJP, when it led the National Democratic Alliance, championed economic reforms with as much zeal as the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. There appears to be no valid reasons, apart from those relating to ego and personalities, why the Congress and the BJP cannot work together within Parliament to carry forward bills on which they are in agreement. Such acts of co-operation can only enrich the quality of governance in India.