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Shadow Cabinet amidst Opposition parties' ideological variations, differing stances?

By Darpan Jain*

“We are in an undeclared emergency”, were the words of one of my professors in a session where we talked about one of the darkest periods in India’s democratic history: The 1975 emergency. This was not the first time I heard this, especially during the past few years. For a long time, the Indian populace had been dealing with coalition governments, until Narendra Modi’s BJP ran home with 282 seats and stretched it to 302 in 2019!
With this, the problem of excessive debating and delayed action (common to most coalition governments) changed to inadequate debate and autocratic legislations. Whether it is the cancellation of the question hour of the monsoon session of the parliament or the cancellation of the entire winter session, the opposition parties maintain a lack of consultation by the government.
So, what does this lead to? The opposition protests but does not receive enough attention. They change their method of protest from talking to shouting and table-thumping. They abandon their seats and surround the speaker. When nothing works, either they walk out, or everyone does courtesy the official adjournment by the speaker. Such situations call for innovation in our parliamentary democracy. The opposition must be organized and the system of a Shadow Cabinet can allow just that.

What is a Shadow Cabinet?

The idea of a ‘shadow’ cabinet comes from the function it performs: to follow every step of the government, chasing it like its shadow. It acts as a parallel cabinet with its positions mirroring those in the real government. So, the shadow cabinet will have all positions as the cabinet of ministers, whether it is home, external affairs, or finance, but with one difference: these positions are taken up by MPs from the opposition parties.
Opposition members who are given charge of these “portfolios” are responsible for monitoring all developments in those respective fields. This shadow cabinet is then headed by the Leader of Opposition. Such a concept is prevalent in many western democracies, including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, and South Africa.
There have been various experiments with the shadow cabinet in India too, but these have been restricted to the state level. For example, in 2005, the BJP and Shiv Sena formed a shadow cabinet in Maharashtra to counter the NCP-Congress government. In 2014, the Congress formed one in Madhya Pradesh against the BJP government.
Even NGO and civil society members have tried creating shadow cabinets, with the NGO Gen Next forming one in 2015 in Goa and social activists coming together to form one in Kerala in 2018. However, all of these experiments have lacked the teeth, motivation, and official status to bring about any change.

Merits of Shadow Cabinet

A shadow cabinet can offer many benefits. It allows the opposition to mark ministers and track issues better. This can improve their understanding of the tabled bill, allowing them to assess it from all aspects. In India, the cabinet minister is usually at an advantage when it comes to a parliamentary debate, courtesy of the better research support and the number of bureaucrats available for his assistance.
However, a well-informed opposition with dedicated MPs for specific portfolios can put in better questions and suggestions, making the debates more informed. In fact, opposition MPs responsible for their dedicated portfolios will not only question and debate more but come up with improved alternative policies.
When nothing works, Opposition walks out or everyone does courtesy adjournment by the speaker. Such situations call for innovation in our parliamentary democracy
Such positions will also be beneficial for individual MPs. Tracking specific portfolios will enable better development and expertise in a particular field. This will reduce their acclimatization time and prepare them to take up these roles as part of the government in the future. Currently, MPs obtain such expertise by being part of Parliamentary Committees dedicated to specific subjects like External Affairs, Agriculture, etc. 
However, these committees also include members from the ruling party and are usually not equipped for the public outreach that shadow cabinets are capable of in order to strengthen their image as an alternative government.
Moreover, the opposition can use these cabinets to check the best portfolio for their members and expose their MPs to more responsibility, hence, imbibing leadership skills and enabling better succession planning. 
There is tangible proof for this as almost all ministers in the government have held a post in the shadow cabinet in countries that have such a system. For example, in the UK, every PM since 1963 has held some portfolio in the shadow cabinet of their party. The same holds true since 1975 for Australia and New Zealand except in one case.
There are some derivative benefits too. With a shadow minister, the media would know whom to call to present an opposing view on a particular issue. Currently, we see the same spokesperson being sent by political parties to every media debate. 
Such spokespersons are usually more adept at sidetracking the issues than having an informed discussion on them. Finally, a shadow cabinet would change the comparison of the PM with the leader of the opposition to a comparison of the cabinet and its shadow, the very essence of parliamentary democracy.

Concerns and criticisms

Like all other systems, the system of the shadow cabinet has its fair share of critics. The most common among these is that it restricts the MPs to expertise in one subject matter, hence, eliminating the opportunity for them to become well-rounded on all matters. However, it is important to note that in most cases, the most experienced and/or capable MPs will be a part of the shadow cabinet.
These MPs, in all likelihood, would have already had the exposure for all-round development earlier. Like all other professions, specialization comes after a person has enough exposure to the general, and this should/would be the case for MPs in the shadow cabinets. Additionally, just like a regular cabinet, shadow cabinets can be reshuffled, allowing MPs to be better equipped with knowledge and expertise of procedures and subject matters across ministries.
Another issue, particularly relevant to India, is the organization of the shadow cabinet in the face of the multi-party system. How many positions should each party get, and which party shadows which ministries? This is a more central concern. Yes, the opposition parties can distribute the positions according to the number of seats each has, but differences are bound to arise. We have already seen how coalition governments can tussle for positions and are inherently vulnerable in their organization. 
This could be far worse for the opposition as parties might have wide variations in their ideologies and a differing stance on many issues. This can result in further marginalization of smaller parties who now would not even have a say in the opposition. Such a system, over time, can turn India into a bi-party democracy.
However, on the whole, I feel the pros far outweigh the cons. A systematic and codified system of shadow cabinets along with the freedom for non-shadow cabinet members to speak, participate and communicate their point of view can be the innovative change needed for our democracy, the crux of which has and should be that no government, whatever the size of its majority, can get away with autocratic and arbitrary decisions at the whim of its leader or the majority sect.
---
*Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Post Graduate Programme in Management, Batch of 2021

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