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February 4, 2011

Shadow practice

A way for the BJP to show that it is prepared to govern.

There is a spring in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) step—and rightly so. The BJP, along with its ally, swept the recently concluded assembly elections in Bihar. The UPA government in New Delhi seems to be hobbling from one crisis to another, mired in corruption scandals, unable to control spiraling inflation like a rudderless ship with no one at the helm. The BJP, which seemed to have hit rock-bottom after the 2009 general elections, has grabbed the chance and is visibly—and vocally—playing the role of a proactive opposition. The parliament has been stalled over the opposition’s demand to have a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe on an outrageous telecom corruption scandal and it is unlikely that even the budget session will be conducted in a normal manner.

Shadow play

Photo: Arti Sandhu/Flickr

As the BJP shines in the role of an effective opposition, it is time to take stock of some reality checks. This is not the first time in India’s parliamentary history that an opposition seems to be moving up on the back of a discredited government, or when a ruling party is in complete disarray in the eyes of the public. The events of 1977 may have been an exception, but from 1989 to 1996, we have seen discredited governments being ousted by inspired oppositions. However, these opposition parties failed to deliver when they came to power at the centre.

This dichotomy lies at the core of the dilemma faced by the main opposition party in a parliamentary democracy—it has to be both an effective opposition, and a ruling party in waiting as well. In simpler terms, the party must not only tell us what it is opposing, but also enlighten us on what it is proposing. It is not sufficient to hide behind the bon mot that where you stand on issues depends on where you sit in parliament.

Some commentators may suggest that the BJP can be judged by its past performance as the core of the ruling coalition from 1998 to 2004. That would be grossly unfair on many counts. The major political actors of that era have all since moved out, and the environment in which those policies were formulated and decisions taken—which were context- and time-specific—have undergone a significant shift. More importantly, the party might have learnt some important lessons from the electoral losses in 2004 and 2009. For example, it might believe that its arguably liberal economic policies were the cause of its electoral defeat in 2004, and might embrace the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s left-leaning model which brought the Congress-led coalition electoral success in 2004 and 2009 general elections. Its record in the home ministry might have also led to some introspection and reflection about its policies against terrorism and internal security.

India is yet to fully understand the BJP’s stand on tackling Maoists, defence modernisation, FDI in retail, fuel subsidies and police reforms, among others. The only way to formulate these policies while in opposition is by announcing a shadow government. The fact that no political party while in opposition—barring a half-hearted attempt by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989—has carried out such a move will make the BJP stand out from the crowd. The three years left in the current parliament provide an ample opportunity for the BJP to execute such a strategy. Such a move will also add credibility to the party’s desire to govern the country, and broadcast its intentions clearly to the electorate.

A shadow government will shift the political debate from being focused on inconsequential matters to concrete issues of policy and governance. It will force the other political parties, when in opposition, to embrace the proposal of a shadow government. Moreover, it offers the BJP a substantive advantage when it steps up to rule—as it aspires to—after the next general elections. With its policies in place, the new government can hit the ground running and take advantage of the honeymoon period. It does not have to spend time learning afresh, and miss opportunities for bold action during its initial months in office.

Can the BJP step up to such a bold program? It is highly unlikely that any party will do so when it sees itself on the ascent—it would be naive to fix something that isn’t broken. Thus it is up to the BJP’s political supporters, commentators and other well-wishers to hold the party’s feet to fire and compel it to announce a shadow government. The road-map of a political party ends when it wins the elections, but the challenges for the nation start when the party begins to rule. A shadow government will allow for the party’s road-map to be merged with the nation’s blueprint.

The message to the BJP is simple: You are doing a great job as an opposition. You have told people often that you want to rule the country. Now go ahead and convince the country that you are prepared to govern—get a shadow government in place.

Sushant K Singh is editor of Pragati and heads the national security programme at the Takshashila Institution.


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