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Strong shadow cabinet can 'bring discourse back' from clouds, mangoes, Nehru

By Joe Athialy*
Why not a shadow cabinet? Tried in some parts of the country in the past, in different forms, it’s time to form a shadow cabinet at the Centre. A feature of Westminster system of government, shadow cabinet, formed by the members of the opposition party, monitor the functioning of the government, and offer an alternative program. It will shadow each member of the Cabinet.
Practised more consistently in United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, shadow cabinet is reported to function in nearly 20 countries. In India’s neighbourhood, Sri Lanka had one in 2016 by joint opposition with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as shadow Prime Minister.
In India a few states tried it in the past. In 2005 the Shiv Sena-BJP combine formed one in Maharashtra to monitor the functioning of the Vilasrao Deshmukh-led Congress government. Not much is reported about the functioning of that shadow cabinet which was headed by Narayan Rane and Gopinath Munde as his deputy. 
In 2015 the Congress party formed one in Madhya Pradesh and Aam Admi Party formed one in the same year in Goa, to monitor the BJP-led governments in both states. Similar to the earlier experiment in Maharashtra nothing is reported about the functioning of those shadow governments.
First time initiated by people’s movements and voluntary organisations, a year back Kerala formed a shadow cabinet. End of June, they are observing the first year of the shadow cabinet. 
In the past year they monitored the functioning of the Left Democratic Front and made policy recommendations to the government on sectors like finance, education, agriculture and power, the shadow minister for fisheries, Magline Philomin said. “But it’s a struggle to get the government listen to us”, she added.
Now that a new cabinet has taken oath, learning from the past experiences, it’s time that a shadow cabinet is formed at the Centre. It can draw the best minds from different opposition parties, academics and civil society and form one to not only monitor the functioning of the government and engage deeply in the Parliamentary debates, but also suggest progressive policies and programmes.
One of the ways in which to hold the government accountable for its actions and not let them walk away changing goal posts and take refuge in ‘clouds’, ‘mangoes’ and ‘Nehru’ is to engage deeply on its performance and only a strong shadow cabinet can make sure to bring the discourse back on track.
Parliament sittings have declined over the years, leaving the governments take the easy route of ordinances, and in some cases money bills (as in the case of changes in Aadhaar Act or Electoral Bonds by the previous Modi government) and not face difficult questions from opposition.
An effective shadow cabinet could throw light on both the content and processes of such attempts both inside and outside the Parliament in an organised and engaged way, rather than isolated and scattered responses by political parties and others.
A complex and diverse country as India, it is likely that the ruling regime could focus on some issues, while some other burning issues could miss their attention, or conveniently ignored. The farm distress which peaked during the last government, and which was brought to the fore by Left parties is an example of that.
Apart from monitoring the functioning of the government, the role of a shadow cabinet could also be to bring such issues to the national stage, in a more thought through and organised fashion.
The issues brought together by a shadow cabinet could influence the media in a positive way. It should stand as a stark contrast to the studio-based journalism of electronic media, where they put a bunch of people together who shout at each other the same time.
Most of the issues covered in such debates lack in-depth research, and the participants are selected not on the basis of subject expertise. A shadow cabinet will not immediately change how this media acts now. But the topics that they bring to the fore, and the insights and information that they put together on each issues should influence the character as well as the quality of debates in the media.
It’s easy to mock at today’s opposition, which is all dissipated, bruised and in shatters. That, if the combined opposition could not pose a challenge to Modi’s march to power a second term, how can they pose one now, with a brute majority in Lok Sabha now and a likely majority in 2021 in Rajya Sabha?
But a real democracy cannot function without an opposition. Defaming, delegitimizing and criminalising opposition, including ones outside of political parties but critical of the government, is a recipe for the death of democracy and rise of authoritarianism.
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*With Financial Accountability Network India, New Delhi

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