Constructive opposition and inquiry are never more vital in a democracy like India than during times of crisis such as COVID-19

Often, dispensations perpetuate the convenient myth that the opposition plays the spoiler (or is even ‘anti-national’), but there cannot be a more important time, role or patriotic thing to do, other than question and oppose constructively, in a crisis | Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh writes

Bhopinder Singh June 22, 2020 09:21:03 IST
Constructive opposition and inquiry are never more vital in a democracy like India than during times of crisis such as COVID-19

Churchill had a point when he said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Unlike dictatorship or authoritarian regimes where no pretense of public explanations is necessary, it is not so in democracy. This vital necessity of democracy begets and breeds the vilest form of manipulations, distractions and contextualisations that aim to ‘dominate’ the political narrative. Those democracies that have governments with comfortable majorities are even more susceptible towards managing the ‘monopoly on truth’, as the institutions of governance are more ‘manageable’.

But reality triumphs in the long term, if the free-and-fair spirit of democratic instincts are allowed fairplay. The ‘monopoly on truth’ is only tested over time when the citizenry demonopolises the narrative and questions, as it always should. This especially happens when the spectre of ‘good times’ militates against the realities on ground and the initial benefit-of-doubts wane. Then the usual order of political instincts is to deny, distract or indulge in competitive-whataboutery — when none works, the times of uber-nationalism have led to the recent phenomenon of ‘rally around the flag’. Herein, the aim is to discredit the questioner with manufactured-incredulity that seeks to taint with impropriety, insensitivity and worse, sedition. In such times the common refrains are, ‘these are not the times to ask such questions’, ‘the opposition must join hands of the government’, ‘the opposition keeps opposing for the sake of opposing’ etc.

The chorus beseeching ‘unity’ or apolitical behaviour (read, not questioning the dispensation) is especially heightened in trying times like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, looming economic crisis or even border tensions.

Put simply, in such times the onus of asking the right questions and not getting carried away by the accompanying political rhetoric and bravado, is most crucial. The vulnerability of the situation demands that all ‘voices’ are heard, all concerns are incorporated, and the most optimal steps are taken by the dispensation of the day. This is not a ‘waste of time’ — it forces the necessary rigour, sensitivity and planning. It is only the hard ‘questioning’ done by journalists in the US or the fact-based opposition by the likes of Governor Cuomo, that make President Donald Trump accountable and responsible. Left to himself, the most important office of the ‘model democracy’ which today presides over a COVID-19 mismanagement that has led to over 1,10,000 deaths, repeatedly downplayed the enormity of the crisis by claiming “we have it totally under control” — when he didn’t.

Constructive opposition and inquiry are never more vital in a democracy like India than during times of crisis such as COVID19

A fine line of difference must be made between those who have sworn to protect the constitutional idea of India and may still disagree with the incumbent dispensation concurrently, as opposed to those who are intrinsically inimical and insurgent to the constitutional idea of India. Image for representation only. REUTERS/File Photo

Even sections of the media forsook the importance of questioning and played along with the ‘rally around the flag’ phenomenon, like the most watched-cable news show on Fox News, [Sean] Hannity, supporting Trump in calling it a ‘hoax’ by saying, “I mean, they're scaring the living hell out of people. And I see it again as like, 'oh, let's bludgeon [US President Donald] Trump with this new hoax’.” Such ingratiation with the powers-that-be may curry favour with Donald Trump and avoid taints of ‘fake news’, but its role in dangerously downplaying the reality of the coronavirus pandemic may never be known.

Times of extreme crises also are the times of monumental, fundamental and transformational decisions — the lives of the citizenry, socio-economic wellbeing and the future of the nation is at stake. The adversarial spirit in opposition can probe, question and contest the intensity and means deployed by the government, as wrong decisions in such times are reversible, at an even worse cost. An unchallenged exercise of power is always prone to short-changing expertise for personal instincts, simplistic assumptions and partisan actions that could be counter-productive in the long run. In any case, in most majority governments the concept of ‘internal-democracy’ is a sham as dissidents are purged by sheer numbers and the only hope for accountability is through external pressure. Also a modicum of accountability and scrutiny from responsible opposition questioning is always preferable to it coming from unverified and irresponsible extremities in society, who may not harbour the best interests of the nation.

The real constitutional option of ‘unity’ is in a national-unity or coalition government that is theoretically composed of members from the ruling and opposition parties — a possible necessity in wartime, where the essential levers of war operations are managed substantially by the Armed Forces, and political outlook or partisan differences count for less and unity in the civil sphere is unanimous. While the coronavirus crisis has been likened to a ‘war’, it is so in some sense, though not completely in the military sense, as the role of civilian governmental is substantially higher here than in a conventional war.

The Westminster model on which the Indian democracy is modelled, saw two national ‘unity’ governments in the World Wars, but in both times the element of ‘opposition’ was still retained as a powerful safeguard and symbol that such undemocratic arrangements are not permanent. While the necessary consensus was ensured, the brutal implications of unchallenged acquiescence were avoided. So dangerous was Donald Trump’s initial coronavirus-denialism that he logged the highest popularity numbers by downplaying the ‘bad news’, and it was only due to the role played by fearless journalists and the opposition that the live spirit of the First Amendment was witnessed in action and reaction.

Often, dispensations perpetuate the convenient myth that the opposition plays the spoiler (or is even ‘anti-national’), but there cannot be a more important time, role or patriotic thing to do, other than question and oppose constructively, in a crisis.

A fine line of difference must be made between those who have sworn to protect the constitutional idea of India and may still disagree with the incumbent dispensation concurrently, as opposed to those who are intrinsically inimical and insurgent to the constitutional idea of India. The radical decisions in the COVID-19 era have already and inevitably shocked the lives, economy and future of India as we know it. What we truly need in the forthcoming days is not necessarily ‘unity’ of partisan thoughts but the rigour, decency and humility to disagree or correct, constructively.

The author is a retired lieutenant-general and former military secretary to presidents KR Narayanan and APJ Abdul Kalam. He is the author of Bayoneting with Opinions and Continuing Opinions in Difficult Times.

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