India cannot replicate dysfunctional democracy at national level
By Kalyani Shankar
After the recent Assembly results, all parties in the tiny State of Nagaland formed an Opposition- free government to get a share in the power pie. All the parties unconditionally supported the ruling alliance, and all parties were in the Government with no Opposition.
It isn't the first time Nagaland has chosen an Opposition-free government. In 2015 and 2021, there were such governments, but this was the first-ever Assembly where there was no opposition party even before the elected members had been sworn in.
The stakeholders justified their decision in their plea to bring all sections together for Naga's political solution. The State faces serious development challenges attributed to long years of insurgency. This complete lack of Opposition shows the convulsions of democracy in its worst form.
The ruling NDPP (Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party)-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) alliance retained power for a second straight term. In the 60-member House, the BJP won 12 seats, and its ally NDPP got 25. Independents won four and Nationalist Congress Party 7. Congress, which ruled the State earlier, did not open its account in the current or the previous Assembly. Sadly, the grand old party is almost disappearing from the North East, where it was a dominant force earlier.
To explain the historical perspective, the Naga movement, the longest-running insurgency in the country, began during the British regime and continued even after independence. In 1997, the Centre signed a ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSC-IM), the largest rebel group.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi renewed the negotiations after he came to power in 2014. As a result, the Naga peace accord was signed to end the six-decade-old insurgency on 3 August 2015. All the parties formed an Opposition-free government before that.
The Government's interlocutor for Naga Peace Talks, R. N. Ravi, signed it on behalf of the Government of India. Lt. Isak Chishi Swu, Chairman, and Thuingaleng Muivah, General Secretary, signed on behalf of the NSCN in the presence of Modi. For a second time, in 2021, the NPF and Independents joined the NDPP-BJP alliance to seek a collective solution to the Nagaland problem and formed an Opposition -free government.
However, as the circumstances differ, the Nagaland experiment cannot be extended to other States or the Centre. Suppose such a thing happened at the national level? Our founding fathers would shiver in their graves.
Former Chief Justice of India N. V. Ramana, addressing Rajasthan Assembly before his retirement, expressed concern over the diminishing space for the Opposition in legislative bodies. He lamented that the laws were passed without detailed deliberation and called for a robust, vibrant, active Opposition.
As a larger question, there are many reasons for the declining Opposition space within the state Assembly. They include an increasing number of dynastic leaders, lack of debate in the Legislature, absence of a good counter-narrative, and their adoption of an obstructive agenda.
The BJP has been aggressive in its expansion. PM Modi and his deputy Amit Shah worked feverishly to expand the party. Even nationally, the opposition space has been systematically eroded in the last decade, mainly after Modi took over.
In contrast, the main political party, the Congress, unable to protect its turf, has continuously declined in its electoral performance. The Left parties, too, face a similar situation. The regional leaders needed the numbers that could only come through alliances with these national parties. Above all, the Opposition parties needed an alternate vision and an engaging narrative to check the ruling BJP.
While drafting the Constitution, our founding fathers went into all aspects, including the role of the Opposition. Ideally, in genuine parliamentary democracies, governments and oppositions have equal obligations and responsibilities to the people who elected them to represent their interests. There is no democracy without Opposition, and theoretically, at least, it is as powerful as the Government. Power, though, has the potential to be misused, as witnessed by the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.
However, the success of democracy depends on the constructive role of the opposition parties as they provide an alternate viewpoint. They also scrutinize and challenge the ruling parties and hold them accountable for their actions.
Opposition is strong when people join it. Today, it is ordinary Indians who are performing the role of a formal Opposition to the Government. The effectiveness of the Opposition lies in raising the right questions. Any opposition party, civil society group, any organization willing to engage with the issues can be a vehicle for opposition politics.
The moral of the story is that democracies can survive authoritarians; they cannot survive the absence of vigorous Opposition. It performs a restraining role and constantly challenges the government of the day by promising a viable alternative.