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'Wheels of democracy on the straight road'

August 27, 2012 21:28 IST

C Rajagopalachari sometimes referred to as the conscience-keeper of the Mahatma himself, once famously remarked that 'a government by the majority without an effective Opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in one bundle.'

In a conversation with one of his biographers, C R dilated on the need for an effective opposition in a democratic set up. 'The two-party system,' he observed 'steadies the movement by putting a fairly equal load into each pannier.

In the human body, two eyes and two ears enable a person to place the objects seen and heard. A single-party democracy soon loses its sense of proportion. It sees, but cannot place things in perspective or apprehend all sides of a question.'

C R argued that for a well-functioning democracy it was absolutely necessary that there exists a 'two party system, in which each of the big political groups possesses effective and continuous leadership and is strong enough to take over the responsibilities of government when the majority of the country's voter's wish it.'

The danger arises when 'political opinion does not succeed in crystallising into two fairly evenly balanced groups', in such a situation the 'semblance of democracy may survive but real parliamentary democracy will not be there.'

Dissent is then '…dissipated among unorganised individuals and relatively insignificant groups which do not and cannot coalesce.'

Writing in the Swarajya issue of 7th December 1963 on the 'Prospects of Democracy in India' C R again cautioned against the perils of 'one-party democracies where the ruling party faces no powerful opposition or none at all.'

Such a situation would 'always end in totalitarianism and in the wreckage of individual freedom without which there can be no real democracy.' No party in office can be assumed to have perfect wisdom [and] unless another party is in a position to criticise and point out errors in open debate, there is no democracy.'

Though C R spoke and wrote during a particular phase of our national life, when the danger of perpetual one-party dominance loomed large, the essence of his position seems to remain relevant in the backdrop of the current state of political and parliamentary affairs.

It is interesting to recall that the first Lok Sabha displayed a remarkable opposition unity on the question of the rights and role of the opposition. Though the Congress had a brute majority of 364 in a House of 489, a united opposition, including Independents did muster up 125 seats. They demanded to be heard.

On 15th May 1952, the day which saw the election of the first speaker of the first Lok Sabha also witnessed a threadbare discussion on the role and the need of an active opposition in a democracy.

A reading of some of the view points advanced on the theme definitely demonstrates how seriously our founding fathers took the issue up. As leader of the opposition, the Communist Party of India leader A K Gopalan moved the name of the Peasant Workers Party member S S More, member of Parliament from Sholapur, as a candidate for the Speaker's post in opposition to the Nehru's choice of G V Mavalankar.

Tridib Chaudhuri, leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party seconded Gopalan's choice. Though Mavalankar won with an overwhelming majority the occasion gave rise to a perceptive debate on the role of the opposition in independent India's first Parliament.

While addressing Mavalankar More was gracious, 'I am the defeated candidate and yet none is happier on your election than myself', he said and then pointed to a fundamental issue. He reminded the speaker that it was his 'noble mission' to 'preserve' the rights and 'safeguard' the privileges of the opposition.

It was necessary, because they had to 'fight against the steam-roller of the Congress.' There are 'so many victorious leaders of the victorious party and it is not unusual that the wine of victory goes to their heads and the [political] minorities suffer. It will be your function…to preserve our rights and safeguard our privileges.'

On the attitude of the opposition, More assured the Speaker that it would be an active and a vocal one. It would observe the rules of the game and would demand a similar compliance from the other end too, 'I can assure you, Sir…that we shall be entering many a battle with the party in power but in fighting these battles we shall observe all the rules of the game.

But the observance of the rules of the game is not a one-sided affair: it is not a one-way traffic and I do also hope that the other side, though sure of their might or strength, shall show greater tolerance and consideration than they usually do.'

It did not matter that parties in opposition were small -- the PWP, for example had just two members -- what mattered instead was their demand to be heard and their readiness to correct and balance the Treasury benches whenever such a need and opportunity arose.

Despite their small numbers, these groups refused to kowtow or be subjugated into a silent acquiescence to the Congress juggernaut.

Gopalan, leader of the 'single largest party in this Parliament on this side' -- the CPI had sixteen members -- was equally forthright in laying down the terms and conditions of the game and in reminding all that the opposition was equally representative of a large number of people who had voted for it: 'As far as we are concerned', said Gopalan, 'I assure you that you will have our fullest co-operation in the discharge of your duties. But we wish to tell you that though we are here in a minority, we represent a large number of people and interests outside this Parliament and as such you will be pleased to safeguard our interests and privileges and see that in order to strengthen democracy in this country…[the privileges of ] the opposition parties, are safeguarded.'

Another stalwart leader of the opposition, who, in the next year and a half, would succeed in assembling an effective opposition to Nehruvian politics and 'Congress-raj' in the country, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, advocated the need to develop a healthy convention vis-à-vis the ruling group and the opposition.

It was after all up to all those present 'whether we are in the Government or in the opposition, to establish healthy conventions and traditions which we will gladly hand over to those who will come after us.'

He also argued that since for the 'first time in Free India' there is going to be a Parliament 'where the opposition will not be negligible' it will be for the Speaker to 'see how conventions and traditions are respected so that a healthy constitutional life may develop within the walls of this House.'

In developing 'the true rights of democracy' it was necessary for both the government and for the opposition to play their part.'

The deliberations of the House had to be conducted in such a way that each was allowed a chance to express views, 'although we may differ on certain issues we may all be given a chance to express our viewpoint and act as a check on the possible whims of the majority party.'

This was the essential role of an ever vigilant opposition. There was to be no personal interest, the entire act was to revolve around national interest as Dr Mookerjee reminded the august House, while concluding his intervention, 'India must proceed from progress to progress and we must all help in advancing the true interests of the millions of the Indian masses.'

But perhaps it was N L Sharma, from Sikar, Rajasthan, representing the now defunct Ram Rajya Parishad, who brought out an extremely relevant angle to the entire Ruling party-opposition debate.

Sharma confessed that speaking in the 'Parliament of Bharat' he did not really represent any particular party, he represented 'the House as a whole rather than the Ram Rajya Parishad alone.'

He called for a similar collective cooperative attitude and stance when it came to India and her national interest and appealed to the ruling party, "I have one request to make to the party in power -- that they should not regard any particular party as opposed to them. For one thing none here is opposed to the interests of India as a whole.

All wish to see India prosper. May be we have so-called ideological differences. I pray they could be overcome and we may become a united nation, aspiring for the prosperity of our motherland and striving ceaselessly towards that end.'

In answer to Nehru's criticism of his efforts of trying to create a credible and democratic opposition in the country in the 1950s and 60s C R  once described the India that, he felt, people really wanted.

In an essay entitled 'The India We Want' written sometime in October 1961 C R  detailed this other India and one of the essentials he wanted in that India was, '…a strong party to be in real opposition to the ruling party -- whichever party it may be -- so that the wheels of democracy [could] run on the straight road.'

It would perhaps be useful to make a reality check on whether the present wheels of our democracy are actually running on the straight road or whether there has been a political expediency induced derailment of sorts.

C R's perceptions and the debates of his other political friends in the first Parliament of independent India can surely still shed enough light on the issue. The present Parliamentary situation and conduct in the country brings the issue to the centre stage once again. Indian democracy seems to be at the cross-roads!
Anirban Ganguly