Opposition political parties, be it at the Centre or in the States, are meant to ‘oppose’ and pursue ‘politics’. Not doing so is a dereliction of their responsibilities to the citizenry. It is a naturally belligerent, motivated and even a bitter task to do so continuously ~ but it is a critical, patriotic and thankless responsibility, nonetheless.
It is impossible to overstate the dangers of unchecked powers in any realm, but when contexualised to the scale and implications of (mis)using the governance levers, the stakes are staggering. Democracy is unquestionably the best amongst various alternative options, but it too is fraught with risks of succumbing to strains of majoritarianism and authoritarianism.
Today, the roots of most of our topical challenges are attributable to not just the ruling dispensation of the day, but to the disjointed, often timid and conflicted approach of our opposition parties. The problem is not ‘over-opposing’ as conveniently posited by ruling governments, but the lack of combativeness, cohesion and articulation by the enfeebled opposition. Globally, there is drift towards the hard-right which has blurred the very fine and necessary line between nationalism and patriotism.
Patriotism has been sadly and very inadequately replaced by toxic nationalism. In this ‘new normal’, intolerance towards contrarian expressions, liberalities and unashamed discomfort with the profundities of the constitutional spirit becomes the overriding passion. There seems to be a tearing hurry to rewrite, re-name and even re-interpret facts to support a narrative that can legitimise and popularize the new changes ~ in participative democracies, the fuel is, ‘might is right’.
A part of that increasingly assertive stratagem is to rubbish all opposition protests as unwarranted, seditious or ‘politically motivated’. Firstly, it is important to remember that all voices of politicians, be it from the ruling parties or from the opposition parties, are indeed ‘politically motivated’ ~ there is nothing pejorative about that and cannot be used as a subtext to blunt. Opposition parties are neither cheerleaders nor naysayers ~ but if they must be so, then playing naysayers brings the positive rigour of ensuring improvements, illuminating blind spots or correcting deliberate biases.
A common tact of deflection is the oftdeployed whataboutery by the ruling parties that runs along the lines of, ‘how can they complain, when they themselves did the same when they were in power?’ Purely from an evolutionary perspective of societal betterment, the opposition must be allowed to oppose even that which it once wrongly supported when not in opposition ~ this is not doublestandards, it is just disallowing one wrong to perpetuate.
Labelling the opposition as perennially ‘anti-national’ for questioning and opposing is another fashionable regression, as it seemingly empowers and emboldens those who align themselves with the ruling party’s sense of moral supremacism and unbridled power.
Harry S Truman once said, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear”.
Ridding the nation of an opposing voice can never be aspirational, as it will lead to an autocratic and despotic regime that could conflict with the interests of even those who support it today but would be too late to repent later! The first Prime Minister and much vilified in recent times, Jawaharlal Nehru, may have much to answer in hindsight, but there is one thing that can never be held against him i.e. using force to blunt the opposition, even when he had an outright majority in the parliament.
To his credit, he remained open to criticism, debate and chose persuasion and engagement over majoritarian instincts. Equally, a similar spirit of democratic accommodation, dialogue and deference for parliamentary methods marked the tenure of the right-leaning Atal Behari Vajpayee dispensation. That spirit is sadly a fleeting memory of the past, with all political parties personalising, falsifying and coercing the opposition, whenever they get a chance, be it in the States or at the Centre.
The brazen misuse of investigation agencies, law-enforcing agencies and muzzling of ‘nonfriendly’ voices, is now the norm. No one party can claim to be holier-than-thou when it comes to entertaining criticism ~ a sense of acute ‘short fuse’ and hypersensitivity prevails. What this leads to is not just the diminished quality of debates but a culture of ‘economies of truth’, intolerances and illiberalities.
The idea of genuinely responding and placating opposition’s queries and concerns without resorting to political hyperbole, competitive whataboutery or sarcasm is almost unthinkable, anymore. To suggest difficult times such as those caused by the pandemic, economic mayhem or even hostile situations on the border as a pretext to beseech the opposition to ‘fall in line’ or ‘join hands with the government’ is a puerile, facile and very expedient argument ~ nothing can be further from truth, as such times warrant that the government puts forward its most thoughtthrough, calibrated and optimum solution.
To disallow opposition from questioning the government and holding it accountable and responsible for its actions, especially when the stakes are the highest for the nation is an unpardonable sin of culpability. History is replete with bloody consequences, whenever the opposition voices have been deliberately or inadvertently muzzled.
Even those who genuinely adhere to and revere a partisan ideology as loyal cadres must seek an active, dynamic and engaging opposition to ensure that their party never slags, atrophies or manipulates the lack of opposition towards undemocratic moorings that are inevitable whenever the opposition’s intensity dims. Lack of external opposition also quashes the portents for the much needed, internal democracy within political parties ~ this too is all pervasive, across all parties.
Such political culture and environment beget a society that is vengeful towards the proverbial ‘others’. If India is a more restive, revisionist and polarised society it is not because of a ‘divisive’ opposition necessarily; it is more so due to the lack of a worthwhile opposition. History teaches that the best years of Indian governance were when opposition was active, thriving and constantly opposing.
(Commissioned in and subsequently commanded 17th Rajput, the author fought in the 1965 & 1971 wars and various counter-insurgency operations in J&K and North East. He was the Military, Naval & Air Attaché for the East & South Africa Region.
Later he was the Military Secretary to Presidents, KR Narayanan & APJ Abdul Kalam. He was the ‘Colonel of the Regiment’ of the Rajput Regiment, President’s Bodyguards, and the Army Physical Training Corps. He retired as the Director General of Military Training. He is currently a columnist for leading publications.)
(This article was first published in 'The Statesman' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of MVI)