Who will watch the watchmen?4 min read . Updated: 17 May 2014, 01:11 AM IST
No single party has managed to get enough seats to qualify as the main opposition. Regional parties may band together to form a front but can they focus on national, not just regional issues?
New Delhi: The incoming Lok Sabha, the 16th, will be the first since the eighth that will not have a member designated leader of the opposition.
The Congress was reduced to winning 37 and leading in 7 seats in the 543-member House, short of the 55 seats a party needs to win to be recognized as the main opposition party and its parliamentary leader to have the status of leader of the opposition.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), with 37, 34, and 20 (both won and leading) seats, respectively, could be considered the opposition, although all three have been part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) coalitions in the past.
Regional parties also tend to be regional in their approach, even in the Lok Sabha, worrying more about an event that affects their state rather than national issues.
“It is a little difficult to analyse how the opposition would finally shape up. The only possibility I see is the Congress party and the other regional parties coming together against the BJP. In the absence of a national alliance, most of the important national issues may go undebated," Pradip Kumar Datta, head of the political science department at Delhi University, said.
“Another problem is that the regional parties as opposition party may only focus on issues when it affects the federal structure, in all other policies the stronger handle would remain with the treasury benches. Such a grouping also allows the room for manoeuvring and pitting one state against the other," he added. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could have staked its claim, but for its performance that saw it winning only four seats, and just around 2.2% of the popular vote (It did, however, register an impressive vote share in Punjab, where it won as many seats as the Akali Dal that rules the state, and in Delhi, although it didn’t win a single seat in the state). Then, the Congress did well in Punjab, too, winning 33% of the popular vote—a clear indication that the popularity (or lack of it) of the state government may have played a part in the results.
Within Parliament, it will still be up to the Congress to play the role of the main opposition, even if its leader is unlikely to be provided the status of leader of the opposition. The constitution makes that provision only for the leader of the single largest opposition party that has at least 10% of the seats in the House.
Sure, the ruling party could, as a matter of protocol, extend that privilege to the leader of the single largest party, but it remains to be seen whether the BJP-led government will do it after a bitterly fought election. Not doing so will also fit in with Prime Minister-in-waiting Narendra Modi’s promise of creating an India free of the Congress party.
Outside Parliament, analysts say the AAP will serve as the opposition—especially given its take-to-the-streets approach. Doing this could also help the party grow into the space vacated by the Congress politically.
“The AAP will be the opposition not inside Parliament, but outside. It has already positioned itself as an alternative to the existing political parties. It will position itself as the watchdog of the new government by exposing its wrongdoings. That would be the way it will be gaining political legitimacy and credibility as an opposition," said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice-chancellor, Jain University, and director of the Centre for Research in Social Science and Education in Bangalore. In some ways, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s willingness to take on Modi in Varanasi—he lost by 336,675 votes—has given the fledgling party more political space than its presence, or performance in the polls, would warrant.
“It was Kejriwal who declared battle against Modi in Varanasi. He sounded the bugle of challenge against him. So it will help them to grab the space of a visible opposition," said Shastri.
The party has also achieved this, again, in measure, by trying to be different from other parties.
According to Shiv Vishwanathan, a New Delhi-based sociologist and professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy in Haryana, a political force can be called disruptive if it either breaks a paradigm or understands the uses of disorder.
“After the AAP’s emergence, it was similar to creating a third factor, where in you create a possibility of both thinking and inventing differently...in a way, it disrupts a particular predictability or a framework of thought," Vishwanathan said.
He added that the disruptive power of the two elections-old party also becomes more effective because it is “creative" in its choice of issues that it is highlighting. “For instance, it has talked about the drug issue in Punjab or, say, the kind of politics that Kumar Vishwas is doing in Amethi. Even creating an election debate along the issue of nuclear power is very creative."
That so much attention should be focused on a party that has an insignificant vote share is also a reflection of the state of the other parties. No regional party has managed to grow outside its home state. The Communist parties, the main opposition in the years after India’s independence, have lost ground, even in the two states they once ruled, West Bengal and Kerala. The AAP, despite the returns in the elections, contested 434 seats across 29 states.