Friday, January 23, 2015

The need for an opposition in a democracy

In this splendid talk, the sociologist Prof. André Béteille says that encouragement of dissent and opposition is the essential distinguishing feature of a democracy.  Dissent  and opposition are part of any society but in a democracy, they don't go underground but are acknowledged and encouraged. He says that in a democracy, one must learn to  live with a certain amount of disorder and learn to deal with them through discussion, debate and dialogue. It is better to allow free expression of dissent rather than be overtaken by a sudden explosion. In his book Anti-Utopia, he writes:
There is no way in which change can come about without the displacement of some norms and values by others. Nor do all conflicts over norms and values end by tearing apart the fabric of society; indeed, the suppression of such conflict may as easily lead to that outcome. It is important to acknowledge their presence and even their necessity, and to create and sustain institutions to negotiate them. This cannot be done by wishing present conflicts out of existence, or hoping for a future in which no conflicts will arise.
In 1957 Congress won the general election by a big margin and it also had power in all the states except Kerala. C. Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji)  was worried about the implications of the lack of  a strong opposition for the heath of Indian democracy. He thought that India needed a strong two-party system but he was initially reluctant to start a party because he  felt that he  was too old, had been a Congressman for long and was personally too close to Nehru.

He set out his views in an article (which  is given in Makers of Modern India where he said that without a strong opposition 'the semblance of democracy may survive but real parliamentary democracy will not be there' and 'government will inevitably become totalitarian'. He wrote:
In a democracy based on universal suffrage, government of the majority without an effective opposition is like driving a donkey on whose back you put the whole load in  one bundle. The two-party system steadies movement by putting a fairly equal load into each pannier. In the human body also, two eyes and two ears aid 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. 
Before the 1957 general elections, Jayaprakash Narayan, who had been campaigning for opposition parties, clarified his position in a letter to Nehru (quoted in Makers of Modern India).  He said that this was not because of any dislike of the Congress but because of certain principles:
According to parliamentary democracy theory it is not necessary for the opposition to be better than the ruling party. Equally bad parties in opposition are a check on one another and keep the democratic machine on track...[A]s a socialist my sympathies are all with the British Labour Party, but I concede that when Labour is in power the Conservatives perform a valuable democratic function without which the Labour government might become a menace to the people...between the two evils of absoluteness of power and a little increase in the strength of certain undesirable parties, the former was the greater evil...
If the fears of totalitarianism can be there with Nehru at the helm, it cannot be lesser under anyone else. The last time such a big majority for one side happened before the last general election was when Rajiv Gandhi came to power with an even bigger majority. At that time I was too young to know that this could be a problem. It is unlikely that evil lies solely in one group and virtue is the exclusive preserve of the other.  The salutary message from that time is that even with that kind of brute majority, it took only about thrree years for Rajiv Gandhi to feel the heat. People always seem to reach for the sun like Icarus and fall back to earth.

Ashis Nandy gives the reson for continuous opposition: 'Yesterday's dissent is often today's establishment and, unless resisted, becomes tomorrow's terror.' And if continuous opposition increases undesirable elements to the extent that democracy is hollowed out, we have to conclude that Ambedkar was right: '...if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man was vile.'

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