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Opposition with weakest voice

(Top) Amarinder Singh, Kamal Nath

New Delhi, May 21: The robust majority Narendra Modi has in the Lok Sabha comes with an additional advantage — a terribly weak Opposition, which may not be ideal for a healthy democracy. Modi will, perhaps, face the faintest Opposition in the history of independent India.

Even when Rajiv Gandhi came to the Lok Sabha with a crushing mandate of 414 seats in 1984 and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — then a new regional party — became the main Opposition with 30 seats, veterans were present in the House to offer the Congress a formidable intellectual challenge. They included Chaudhary Charan Singh of the Lok Dal, Madhu Dandavate and Biju Patnaik of the Janata Party, Somnath Chatterjee, Saifuddin Choudhary and Basudeb Acharia of the CPM, and Indrajit Gupta of the CPI.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who headed the first BJP-led government for five years between 1999 and 2004, had to deal with the likes of Chandra Shekhar, Somnath, Gupta, Acharia, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mohan Singh, Lalu Prasad and Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.

Though leader of Opposition Sonia Gandhi wasn’t very active, the Congress had enough firepower in Madhavrao Scindia, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Rajesh Pilot, Jaipal Reddy, Jitendra Prasada, Kamal Nath and K. Karunakaran.

Even the back benches of the Congress had heavyweights like the combative Buta Singh, Margaret Alva, Satyavrat Chaturvedi, Pawan Bansal, Sunil Dutt and Mani Shankar Aiyar, who took on the treasury benches in any discussion.

The Congress, with 114 members against the BJP’s modest 182, was able to keep the NDA on toes. The Congress’s ideological affinity with the Left and the socialists gave it the political swagger to counter the BJP.

The new 16th Lok Sabha is different. While the BJP’s own majority provides it muscle to bulldoze the Opposition, the decimation of so-called secular forces puts the Congress on a shaky ground at the ideological level. The absence of leaders like Sharad Pawar, Acharia, Gurdas Dasgupta, Sharad Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Farooq Abdullah, besides parties like the CPI, BSP and the DMK, may leave the Congress isolated in ideological debates too.

Mulayam has won but he has only two nephews and a daughter-in-law to give him company from his party. The Trinamul Congress has a sizeable presence and fighters in its ranks. The extent of opposition to the NDA will largely depend on the attitude of Trinamul because the other formidable party, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, may want cordial relations with Modi. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) also has 20 members, but they are not a boisterous lot.

Though the absence of clear mandates have haunted governments in the recent past and the question of instability became a crucial factor in poor governance, most political observers feel the worst aspect of the 2014 verdict is the absence of a strong Opposition.

India has had a liberal democratic tradition and some of the best parliamentarians since the Nehru era made their mark in the Opposition. Be it Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari or Hiren Mukherjee, Ram Manohar Lohia or Nath Pai, J.B. Kripalani or Madhu Limaye — their politics meant questioning the government of the day.

The Congress can still put up some resistance with its 44 members as there are a few effective leaders in its depleted ranks. While Sonia and Rahul will have to play an active role in Parliament, veterans like Kamal Nath, Mallikarjun Kharge, Veerappa Moily, K.V. Thomas and Amarinder Singh will have to share a lot of the burden if the Congress is serious about putting the BJP-led government to serious scrutiny.

Among the young leaders, there are the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ashok Chavan, Deepender Hooda and Youth Congress president Rajeev Satav, who can match BJP speakers on any issue.

The Opposition ranks also have H.D. Deve Gowda, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil, Tariq Anwar, Mohammad Salim and Bharhari Mahtab. All of them are capable of questioning the government’s performance. But they are no match for stalwarts of yesteryear who could shake governments with their incisive arguments, knowledge of governance, oratorical prowess and fearless opposition.

This means Modi, who didn’t allow any role — constructive or destructive — for the opposition in the Gujarat Assembly, may have an easy ride in his parliamentary debut.

The Congress doesn’t believe in playing the role of a destructive Opposition and the Vajpayee government faced problems only when a big scam or a Tehelka scandal broke.

By contrast, the disruptions in the previous 15th Lok Sabha were unlike anything seen before, as the BJP was determined not to allow normal functioning of Parliament. Some sessions were wiped out entirely; even those that could be held had little to show by productivity. House figures show normal work for 1,343 hours while 883 hours — almost 66 per cent of the work time — were lost to disruptions.

The BJP will not have to face such turmoil and first two-three years are likely to be smooth. The Congress in this time plans to strengthen its organisational machinery and fight Modi on the ideological front in the streets instead of raising hurdles by disrupting Parliament.