Walking slowly into the central hall of the 17th Lok Sabha after being sworn in as MP amidst ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants, an opposition MP lamented: "Looks like this is a 10 year mandate for the Modi government." The MP's depression was not surprising: the opposition benches wore a distinctly deserted look and many familiar faces were missing. If the Lok Sabha offers a mirror to the state of our republic, then we are entering a unipolar India, one where diversity is giving way to a saffronised polity.
Never before perhaps in the history of the Indian parliament has the opposition looked so bedraggled and dispirited. Not even in 1984 when the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi won an even bigger mandate than Narendra Modi. At least then, both within parliament and outside, there were an array of strong opposition leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, George Fernandes and Chandrashekhar to raise their voice with passionate fervour. The BJP too was organisationally still resilient because of the RSS network while the left retained its activist zeal. Not to forget regional satraps like NT Rama Rao and Ramakrishna Hegde who had given the Congress a bloody nose in state elections. Even in the Nehru and Indira age, there were always a galaxy of opposition leaders who could be counted upon to create atleast some contrarian arguments.
Contrast that with the opposition predicament today. The Congress appears to be drifting into chaos and uncertainty. Rahul Gandhi's decision to give up the party presidentship has created a vacuum which is unlikely to be filled without internal turmoil. In the Lok Sabha, the party lacks experienced stalwarts with a strong nationwide presence while in the Rajya Sabha, the calm reassuring figure of a Manmohan Singh will be missed. The confusion in the Congress over its parliament strategy is reflective of a party scurrying around headless at the moment.
The other opposition parties face an equally shaky future. The left, once at the forefront of agitational politics, is now reduced to just three MPs. The Trinamool Congress, the third largest party in parliament, is still recovering from the breach of its Bengal fortress by the BJP, its leader Mamata Banerjee showing signs of anxiety and manic desperation that have pushed her government in Kolkata to the brink. The BSP- SP alliance has broken almost before it could really become an alternate force. Regional parties like Jagan Reddy's YSR, K Chandrashekhar Rao’s TRS and Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal are looking to cut deals with the Centre to keep their state interests intact.
Which leaves the 17th Lok Sabha looking increasingly like an 'opposition-mukt' parliament where a hegemonical party with a domineering leader can call all the shots. Already, prime minister Modi has given enough signs with his choice of cabinet members that he intends to impose a presidential-style chief executive model of governance on a parliamentary system. There appears to be quite simply no one, both within the government and outside, who can remotely challenge the ruling establishment: no cabinet minister can seriously be expected to even question a prime ministerial firman, not when Rajnath Singh, the 'official' number 2 in government, is initially kept out of major cabinet committees. Even restive allies like Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal United or Udhav Thackeray's Shiv Sena, after being denied plum ministerial berths, have little choice this time but to suffer in silence and fall in line.
This 'opposition-mukt' legislature is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper institutional crisis where the checks and balances of democracy are now under strain. As the 2019 election campaign showed, large sections of the media have simply failed to offer a mirror to the government, many of them too timid or else too compromised to fulfil their primary mandate of speaking truth to power. The judiciary is still seen by some as a last resort for preserving constitutional integrity but its role too has come under the scanner in recent times with senior judges facing charges of impropriety and worse.
The deleterious effects of this Supreme Leader 'command and control' model of centralised decision-making have already been felt in the 16th Lok Sabha. When the union budget is passed without even a hint of a debate, when important bills like Aadhar are rammed through parliament as money bills, when ministers are kept in the dark about key issues within their ambit, when the opposition is unable to muster a single sustained agitation on an issue of public importance like note-bandi, then constitutional democracy appears to be truly under strain.
Now, when journalists are physically attacked and jailed, when covert attempts are initiated to change the demographics of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, when the economy seems to be faltering and GDP numbers are dodgy, who will raise a red flag? At least in the previous parliament, the Rajya Sabha was able to offer some resistance to the untrammelled powers of the executive on contentious issues like triple talaq and the Land Acquisition Amendment bill . The fact that the government didn't have a majority in the Upper House meant that it wasn't easy for the ruling party to short-circuit parliamentary processes. Next year that too could change with the BJP inching towards a majority in the Upper House.
So where will the challenge come from to any potential abuse of power? In the Rajiv years, it came from within the government when VP Singh broke away in 1987 to raise the banner of revolt. Indira Gandhi's sweeping victory in 1971 eventually saw the opposition find its muscle as first, public disquiet over rising prices, and then the imposition of Emergency, galvanised the dissenting voices of protest.
Modi 2.0 is arguably more powerful than even Indira Gandhi in her pomp and the political opposition more discredited now. Any robust questioning then of government policies may have to be initiated by civil society at the risk of being dubbed 'anti-national': then be it the economic challenges or any attempts made to tinker with the constitution, independent voices need to stand up to be counted. Or risk being silenced for a very long time.
Post script: On the first day of the 17th Lok Sabha, prime minister Modi asked the opposition to forget their small numbers and speak freely in parliament. It was a fine, statesman-like conciliatory gesture but as one opposition member points out, Mr Modi makes the right noises at the start of every session. Will the PM walk the talk this time, or will parliament become like the Gujarat assembly was when Mr Modi was chief minister, a ritual without substance?