Numbers matter in a democracy. This has been hammered home repeatedly by the BJP and its supporters over the past decade as the Narendra Modi government swept to power with an absolute majority. Numbers represent the people’s mandate. The BJP used its majority to delegitimise and dismiss the Opposition from Parliament, short-circuiting debate, pushing through crucial legislation, and bypassing accountability.

Now, with the BJP reduced to a minority and reliant on alliances, a united Opposition underscores the same lesson: Numbers matter. While a view of democracy driven entirely by numbers is reductive, the changed equations have allowed at least one aspect of a more expansive view of democracy to flourish: The return of Parliament as a forum for national debate and discussion.

The people of our country have spoken clearly in the 2024 election, electing not just a government but also an opposition. This is the first time since the Modi government swept to power that we have an official Leader of the Opposition.

Parliament is no longer a forum to rubber-stamp the PMO’s diktat. As Opposition members stand up to assert themselves — and to represent the many voices of our country’s people — Parliament has once again reclaimed its preeminent position as the site for discussion, debate — and listening. When the Leader of the Opposition, Rahul Gandhi, delivered his wide-ranging speech, the treasury benches — and the Prime Minister — listened. To the man whose lampooning had become an organized industry unto itself, the Prime Minister responded that democracy has taught him to take the Leader of the Opposition seriously.

These scenes of charge and counter-charge, of speaking and responding to specifics, were heartening, but they are not enough. Partisanship is an essential feature of electoral democracy, the fuel for accountability and regime change. At the same time, all of us who love our country hope for bipartisanship alongside periods of contestation — a desire to work through our differences and find common ground, driven by a shared love for our nation.

Festive offer

Parliament is bipartisanship’s highest institutional expression. What then needs to be done to support Parliament in playing its full role?

Both sides must play their part. The Opposition must outright reject the late Arun Jaitley’s advice that disruption is a legitimate parliamentary tactic. It is arguable whether disruptions have served any meaningful purpose in driving accountability or whether they have instead led to a sense of generalized aversion among the people of our country.

However, for this to happen, the government itself must act in good faith and do three things.

First, as per parliamentary convention, the Deputy Speaker’s position should go to the Opposition. It is pointless to circulate state assembly LOP lists when past Parliaments clearly had an Opposition member as Deputy Speaker. Allowing an Opposition member to become the Deputy Speaker will also send the message that the government is willing to play by the rules instead of trying to swallow defecting members of smaller parties to buttress its majority.

Second, the Opposition must get a chance to raise issues and set the agenda at least one day of the week when Parliament is in session.

Third, crucial legislation must be sent to Standing Committees for scrutiny. Parliamentary debate serves a very important function in driving the national discourse; however, speeches in Parliament can also tend towards rhetorical excess and grandstanding. Standing Committees, insulated from public view and supported by expertise, are forums where detailed discussions and active bipartisanship is possible.

Standing Committees had lost their vigor in the past two terms. Pivotal laws have been passed in a matter of minutes amidst disruptions, opposition, and even the shameful suspension of nearly 150 Opposition MPs. Moreover, many Standing Committees became divided along partisan lines and thus lost legitimacy. The rushed passage of the farm laws exemplifies the perils of bypassing proper parliamentary scrutiny. These laws, passed without adequate debate or stakeholder consultation, led to widespread protests and were eventually repealed. This term presents an opportunity to revitalize our Standing Committees as places of bipartisanship, genuine deliberation, and accountability.

The strength of our democracy lies not just in holding elections, but in the robust functioning of our institutions between them. It is because our institutions of democracy seemed to have atrophied that we saw people repeatedly resort to street protests as an outlet for their dissent. The 2024 election has given India a chance to reinvigorate its parliamentary democracy. With a strong opposition in place, we have an opportunity to restore the vitality of our most important democratic institution. To achieve this, both the government and the opposition must act in good faith. Only then can Parliament become a forum where diverse voices are heard, policies are rigorously scrutinised, and the will of the people is genuinely represented.

The writer is the executive director of Future of India Foundation