Prime Minister Narendra Modi's assurance that the Opposition need not worry about numbers, and that every voice from them would be valued reflects as much the morale of the ruling coalition with its 353 seats out of the 542 in the house, as the hope of the prime minister about a new parliamentary culture. Modi's words came while talking to the media as a precursor to the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha. While pointing out that Opposition is an essential element of democracy, he also reminded MP's that they should maintain the spirit of impartiality.
Modi also gave a promise that by focusing on development without distinction between treasury bench and opposition, the government will try to uphold the dignity of the Lok Sabha in the next five years. At the same time, it has to be admitted that while looking back at the functioning of parliament and the government during the past five years, things had not moved along the lines of the noble thoughts now expressed by the prime minister. Seldom was he present in the house. When MPs asked the prime minister to respond on crucial national issues, he was not prepared for that.
The treasury bench had tried to block and silence the Opposition during the debates, as much as or even more than the Opposition had done vice versa. There were cases of the government pushing through crucial legislations in a hurry even on subjects that required close scrutiny and detailed analysis. For example, the government that made haste to pass the triple talaq bill using its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, was not prepared to seriously consider amendments proposed in Rajya Sabha where it lacked majority. Now the government is in a move to introduce the bill again in parliament.
This time, the ruling party is now hopeful that contrary to last time that it can get the bill passed by Rajya Sabha too. When the Supreme Court has declared triple talaq unlawful, it is evident that only single talaq is valid in Muslim personal law. That being so, as the Opposition had asked then, why should the husband be put in jail for three years and thus unable to even pay the maintenance to the divorced wife as per the existing law. But the Modi government did not give even a moment's thought to that. In the changed circumstances, whether the prime minister's word that the government will hear every word of the Opposition, is a matter to be seen.
The prime minister's promise that the government's endeavour in the next five years will be to implement the sole aganda of the country's development by taking all into confidence, also raises some legitimate doubts. During the first NDA government's term from 2014 to 2019, when the government banned currencies of Rs 1000 and 500 in one go, or when it imposed a huge tax burden by introducing GST, or when labourers' primary rights were curtailed to favour the corporates, the people did not get the feeling that the governments claim of being 'for all' was true. If, they voted NDA for a second time to power, the reasons for that have to be found in the disunity and weakness of the secular opposition forces, the bias of the media and the liberal flow of money from corporates.
Further, when emotional issues palatable to the majority community were made election issues, even the legitimate human rights demands of minorities failed to receive any attention. Not only that, if at all any party raised such issues, that was labelled as minority appeasement. Therefore, in the new context, what will be eagerly watched is whether the prime minister will show the magnanimity to do justice to the minorities or again yield before the extreme Hindutva elements and venture to make even minorities' citizenship an issue. After having created a political climate if even the Opposition does not make bold to express its views, the promise that their voice will be valued becomes meaningless.
When it comes to the 17th Lok Sabha, many of the war horses of the old times have either withdrawn or been kept out. When the ruling party has gained strength, the Opposition has correspondingly weakened. However, there are several new faces too. Discussions and debates can be turned substantive and effective, provided they live up to that. When the prime minister exhorts them to take decisions with 'people's interests' in mind, that should not be mistaken for a call to adhere to regressive concepts with no rational or scientic basis in the name of protecting culture and heritage.
What deserves to be protected are the peoples legitimate, just and progressive interests. Age is not a criterion or justification for the merit or otherwise of anything. Age-old values and dharma are not a synonym for the obstinacy to maintain and ratify outdated beliefs and rites. Let us wish and pray that the highest law-making body of the country – duty-bound to lend light and guidance to the country - will be a forum that seriously debates and decides on creative, progressive and development-oriented agenda.