Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum that “no government can long be secure without a formidable Opposition” has been found by experience to be quite true and fully valid. Wherever the parliamentary system of government has been established, the importance of a healthy, effective, vigilant and wide awake Opposition has been fully realised.
The British Parliament is commonly acknowledged to be the “Mother of Parliaments”. It has also been the best model of a system where the Opposition is officially recognised as His (or Her) Majesty’s Opposition.
The largest minority party constitutes the official Opposition in the British Parliament, with its own leader and its own council, popularly known as the “Shadow Cabinet”. The leader of the Opposition in Britain (and in most parliamentary democracies around the world) is accorded official recognition and provided several facilities to enable him to function adequately. He is regarded as the future Prime Minister, since his party, especially in Britain, offers a viable alternative to the government of the day.
The common belief that a healthy Parliamentary opposition is essential for the sound working of democracy implies that unless there is a vigilant opposition, constantly on the alert and ever watchful of the government’s policies and actions, the ruling party would tend to get complacent and tardy. But, when there are well-informed critics, ever ready to expose the wrongs committed by the government, and to bring to light its acts of omission and commission, the ruling party can hardly afford to be slack and negligent in the performance of its duty towards the country—namely, to provide an efficient and sound administration.
The parliamentary system of government works very smoothly where there are two principal political parties, more or less equally matched, the one out of power ever ready to take over the reins of the administration whenever the majority party is voted out of office, or resigns on a major issue, or is reduced to a minority as a result of defections or resignations of members.
A vigilant public also plays the role of the Opposition. Democracy, after all, is participation in the administration in a responsible manner. “The democratic problem”, said the well-known commentator Lindsay “is the control of the organisation of power by the common man.”
The citizens of a democratic country must be “thinking men and women”, possessing independent opinions and capable of taking intelligent interest in public affairs. It has been rightly said that the success of a democracy depends upon the ability, character and, what is no less important, the power of discrimination which the people are expected to possess.
In fact, democracy is reduced to an empty show if the citizens begin to behave like sheep and dumb cattle and develop the crowd mentality of being driven whichever way the leaders dictate.
Active and intelligent participation of the people in public affairs can be assured if they are adequately educated. Without education there can be no intelligent discussion and participation in the processes of government.
Education produces rational human beings, and the power of thinking develops the power to discriminate between good and bad. A citizen of a democratic regime is not merely to obey; he has also to see if his obedience is rational and warranted.
A citizen is expected to develop the power of vigilance and the ability to distinguish between chalk and cheese. People who follow Bentham’s maxim “While I will obey promptly, I will censure freely” are true citizens of a democratic State.
They possess the power to judge right and wrong and also the ability to criticise. It is this ability to judge and discriminate that leads to responsible criticism and to a healthy democracy.
Democracy provides an outlet and a safety valve for the people’s anger and frustration, and this outlet is open criticism of the government, whenever and wherever it does something wrong, or fails to adopt the right course as demanded by the public interest.
Thus, the public shares the role of the Opposition whenever occasion demands it. The Press also has a vital role to play in a democracy. It is the popular forum of educating the public and also expressing the public viewpoint.
Actually, the Press not only reflects public opinion and is the people’s voice in a democracy; it also helps to build up public opinion. The Press should really be a jealous guardian of the people’s rights, privileges and liberties.
Granted that it is the function of the Opposition to oppose, but whether it is the Opposition in Parliament or the critics of the government in public, or the newspapers in the country, all criticism has to be made, and the Opposition voiced, in a responsible and healthy manner.
If the Opposition behaves irresponsibly, and indulges in unhealthy, destructive criticism, instead of constructive discussions, the entire democratic fabric is endangered. Both sides—the ruling party and the Opposition—have to observe the rules of the game. They must not play foul; for, one foul inevitably leads to another and yet another, and then the end of folly is nowhere in sight.
Democracy then becomes a mess. It is quite obvious that unless the people are vigilant and alert, all power would pass into the hands of clever professional politicians and demagogues who seldom hesitate to exploit the ignorant masses and pursue policies that help them to perpetuate their rule.
It is also the duty of the government to facilitate healthy functioning of the Opposition. If, however, it imposes restraints of various types and suppresses public opinion and the public voice, both inside and outside the legislature, it is guilty of undemocratic and authoritarian tendencies, which are as unhealthy as irresponsible conduct by the groups and Opposition newspapers.