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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 34, New Delhi, August 7, 2021

The Significance of a Shadow Cabinet: The Opposition Should Establish It | Anil Nauriya

Saturday 7 August 2021, by Anil Nauriya


by Anil Nauriya

The political crisis in India has assumed a serious character. Since 2014 there has been an all-round failure in governance with respect to Public Order and Rule of Law, Public Health, Public Welfare, Social Unity, Economy, External Affairs and Defence. Closely associated with this, there has been an erosion in the independence of most Constitutional institutions not excluding even the Election Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. As I have argued in my article in Mainstream (15 May 2021) the time has come in this extraordinary situation when it would be appropriate to request the President of India to initiate talks toward the establishment of a National Government. The case for this was made out in my previous article and has also been taken up independently by other organisations, notably Citizens For Democracy (CFD).

Pending further steps towards this objective, it is time for Opposition parties to start a conversation on setting up a Shadow Cabinet as is the tradition in many Parliamentary forms of Government. The institution of a Shadow Cabinet is now part of parliamentary practice and conventions in several countries.

The late P M Bakshi, in his work on the Constitution of India, had explained the concept of Shadow Cabinet in its widest form as "a body of opposition leaders meeting from time to time and ready to take office". Yet, in countries like Britain with which India’s parliamentary practice is related, a Shadow Cabinet involves also a broad allocation of subjects such that there is intensive Opposition scrutiny and generation of expertise in specific areas. It may be said that to some extent the Standing Committees of India’s Parliament now meet this particular need. But recent experience, as in the Pegasus affair, has shown that such Committees can also be stymied by insufficient co-operation from Government. The tradition of an unconstrained Shadow Cabinet, with its own independent approach and giving rise to its own expertise, well established in many parliamentary democracies, including Britain, now needs to be created and nurtured in India.

Although the idea of a Shadow Cabinet has been quite well known in India and has also been discussed from time to time, it has not been institutionalized after independence in the way it has been elsewhere.

The notion and working of Shadow Cabinets was taken fairly seriously in England. Winston Churchill’s opposition to the idea of granting India even Dominion Status had led him to resign from Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Shadow Cabinet on 29 January 1931. This was within hours of Mahatma Gandhi’s release from prison in India. Leopold Amery noted that many in the Shadow Cabinet were "horrified" at the prospect of India obtaining Dominion Status. As Duff Cooper would write later, the Conservative Party in England had split on the question of India. Although Conservatives were then out of power, the repercussions of the opposition of many of their leading figures to the prospect of further Constitutional advance in India cannot be underestimated. The significance of a Shadow Cabinet and its political impact on events can thus hardly be lost on any Indian.

The notion of a Shadow Cabinet had its reverberations within pre-freedom India as well. Subhas Bose, for example, had asserted that the Congress Working Committee was the Shadow Cabinet of ’Independent India’ and that it should function accordingly.

After Indian independence in 1947, the idea of Opposition parties establishing a Shadow Cabinet did not receive much attention or support. One reason for this perhaps was that, apart from Parliament itself, the then Ruling party itself represented a wide cross-section of views; most decisions were democratically arrived at after discussion within the Union Cabinet and the Ruling Party. This was accompanied or followed by threadbare discussion in Parliament. Not only the All India Congress Committee, but also the Congress Parliamentary Party was an active forum for debating Government policy.

In fact a commentary in Mainstream in 1966 noted that "Of late, the Congress Parliamentary Party’s Executive has been assuming the status of a Shadow Cabinet…".

It was primarily after the 1969 split in the Congress that the idea of establishing a Shadow Cabinet as understood in Parliamentary Government, that is, a Shadow Cabinet of the Opposition parties began to be seriously discussed in independent India.

Yet, the ideological disparity among the Opposition Parties at the time, ranging from the Socialist and Communist Left to the Communal- sectarian parties, was so wide that the idea was easily dismissed in ruling circles. Mrs Indira Gandhi herself would scoff at the talk in Opposition circles about forming a "Shadow Cabinet".

After the massive mandate that Mrs Indira Gandhi secured in the General Elections of 1971, the proposal to establish a Shadow Cabinet of the Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha again lost much of its traction.

Interestingly, however, there was an attempt within the Congress (O) in the Rajya Sabha to form a Shadow Cabinet of its own. Not much is now known about how this effort, innovative in the context of an Upper House of Parliament, fared.

The idea then appears to have re-surfaced after the defeat of the Congress Government at the Centre in the Parliamentary elections in 1989. There are conflicting versions on whether Rajiv Gandhi actually established a Shadow Cabinet when in Opposition during the interregnum between 1989 and the next General Elections of 1991. There are some accounts maintaining that Rajiv Gandhi set up a committee as "a kind of" Shadow Cabinet. Other accounts hold that a Shadow Cabinet system had then begun to "emerge". A well-known and respected Bombay journal at the time actually reported that Rajiv Gandhi had constituted a Shadow Cabinet in 1990. Yet others assert that Rajiv Gandhi did not in fact appoint a Shadow Cabinet.

The advantages of setting up a Shadow Cabinet are obvious. Specific policy areas thereby receive intensive examination by Opposition Parliamentarians. In the 1920s Motilal Nehru had stressed the need for developing adequate independent expertise to grapple with issues concerning currency and international trade. In more recent decades, scholars have similarly pointed to the need for greater expertise among Opposition parties on Defence and security matters. Public health is another area that needs to receive specialised attention from Opposition Parliamentarians.

Most important of all, the formation of a Shadow Cabinet signals to the country and the people not only that the Opposition is ready to assume power but also that there is actually a Government in Waiting. This is an important message to send out at especially at a time when there has been an all-round failure in Constitutional and general Governance.

As the late M Chalapathi Rau had remarked, "today’s leader of the Opposition may be tomorrow’s leader of the Government". Likewise, today’s Shadow Cabinet may be tomorrow’s Government.

The argument set out above is applicable not merely to the Centre. It is equally valid for the States. I am given to understand that a Shadow Cabinet has been working quite successfully in the state of Bihar. This phenomenon may well be replicated in other states. The establishment of this practice in an institutionalised manner has been long overdue at both the Central and state levels.

The Opposition Parties today have more in common than did the Opposition parties of 1967 and 1970-72. There is a far stronger basis for unity among Opposition Parties today than there was among the Opposition Parties in 1967, 1969, 1971 or in any period prior to the rise of the present Ruling Party.

The seeds of Opposition Unity have existed and have been on display time and again. Only recently, on 6 July 2021, some leaders of the Opposition parties at the Centre got together to send a joint letter to the President of India on the question of the treatment meted out to the late Fr Stan Swamy and related issues. This provided powerful ocular evidence of unity in action. Whatever differences in emphases today’s Opposition Parties might have, they appear to be united on the principles that sustain the Basic Structure of the Constitution of India. The dispensation they are up against comprises many whose conduct suggests fealty to values other than those embodied in the Basic Structure and to norms inconsistent also with the highest ideals of India’s struggle for freedom. The essentials that now unite the Opposition must pave the way for establishing a Shadow Cabinet and also, in the period preceding the next General Elections, resuscitate and invigorate national life by seeking a National Government committed to addressing the basic needs of the people and maintaining their social unity. These initiatives would instill confidence among citizens in the face of visible collapse of institutions of governance. And, for all we know, these initiatives may also provide a way out even to those in the current ruling dispensation who might have come to a realisation of having been led astray.

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