After nearly a year, the main opposition has returned to parliament, only to stage a walkout within just four hours. Is there any reason to believe that their presence in parliament can make any difference?
Will the ‘debates’ involve anything more than vulgar comments about dead presidents, questioning of the other side’s loyalty to the country, and sycophantic adulation of the respective party chiefs? In our winner-takes-all democracy, a government with one seat majority can run the country ignoring the other side. So what can the opposition do when the ruling coalition has nine times as many MPs?
If BNP and its allies were to attend parliament only once every 90 days, should anyone care?
Well meaning pundits would pontifficate about the opposition attending parliament for the sake of democracy and the long term benefit to the country. They would talk about highfalutin concepts like the politicians’ solemn pact with the citizens, about the legislators’ responsibilities as people’s representatives.
The pundits are right, of course. The snag is, politicians seldom want to do anything because of some long run benefit — they are mostly motivated by costs and benefits here and now. Since much of BNP’s (and its major ally Jamaat’s) senior leadership failed to get elected, there is self-evidently little benefit in parliamentary politics for many in these parties.
But what about the opposition MPs? Can they do anything, other than the usual Paltan Maidan style speeches, that is both in their own selfish political interest and of some tangible benefit to our Republic?
Turns out that there are a number of things the opposition could do in parliament that both achieve narrow partisan ends as well as benefit the public broadly.
1. Ask that the three agreements signed in New Delhi in January be tabled at the House (or the appropriate committee(s)) immediately.
The government has to table these documents according to Section 145A of the Constitution, which reads:
All treaties with foreign countries shall be submitted to the President, who shall cause them to be laid before Parliament Provided that any such treaty connected with national security shall be laid in a secret session of Parliament.
Once these agreements are available, the opposition should make specific notes of dissent outlining reasons. Instead of making farcical statements about ‘secret treaties’, specific criticisms will not only improve the public discourse, it will also make the opposition more credible.
2. Demand that the Tipaimukh fact-finding parliamentary delegation that visited India last monsoon present a report to the House. Also demand that various investigation reports on the Pilkhana tragedy be placed before the House or appropriate committees.
If the government obliges, these reports, whose publications are long overdue, need to be parsed. If publications are refused, the opposition demands will surely be echoed in the media, making things very uncomfortable for the government.
3. Ask for an all-party committee to recommend steps to curb campus violence.
Campus violence has hurt both sides in recent weeks. And experience suggests that it is difficult to stop the cycle of violence unilaterally. The opposition has absolutely nothing to lose by making the gesture.
4. Ask for parliamentary committees to investigate specific corruption allegations or appointment to key posts.
For example, if multi-million dollar contracts are allocated to energy multinationals without tender and against the concerned government agency’s advice, or a seemingly less than qualified person is appointed to head a public body, the opposition should ask these to be investigated.
It’s important that when such investigations are demanded, they are backed with specific, quantitative information. It’s also important to realise that the investigations will, as they should, begin with a presumption of innocence. But if such efforts of scrutinising the executive are thwarted, it will only add credence to the allegations.
5. Have its MPs publish their income tax returns from the past one year.
This will put all the more pressure on the government to do the same
6. Talk about institutional reforms.
The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Regulatory Reforms Commission are defunct. The Election Commission took six months to strip one Awami League MP of his seat. Judicial nominations were supposed to happen with input from the opposition. Elected local government representatives are aghast at the way they are being undermined.
The opposition should bring specific private member’s bills to expedite institutional reform. Again, if the government ignores such bills and motions, there will be much louder questions about the government ’s foot dragging on institutional reforms.
7. Ask targeted questions.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with solid verbal jousts. Indeed, this is common practice in parliaments around the world. Experience in more mature democracies, however, suggests that it is the government that has more to lose by resorting to name-calling. They are elected to run the country. If ministers respond to specific questions about the law and order situation, high prices, education policy, or border killings by making vulgar statements about their political opponents, the political fallout will be unambiguously good for the opposition and bad for the government.
Experience of the past couple of decades is that people are not interested in street agitations against even widely unpopular governments, and the current one is actually quite popular. Instead of pursuing street politics of the last century, the opposition should look to the airwaves for the 21st century politics, using Parliament as an effective venue.