The monsoon session of the Parliament took place in Covid-19 times, and attracted furore over cancellation of the question hour. Although the Opposition made noise about this, it did not receive attention from the powers that be. Therefore, it is important that the Opposition works to protect and further parliamentary democracy in innovative ways. While the Congress announced formation of Committees to determine its course of action in either House, this piecemeal approach is not enough. The Opposition must be organised (including those outside of the UPA) under a Shadow Cabinet, and the Government must help the institutionalisation of this process.
What is a shadow cabinet?
A shadow cabinet is a body parallel to the Union or State cabinet, consisting of legislators belonging to the opposition, which tracks the policies and decisions of the cabinet and challenges them. This idea of a ‘shadow’ cabinet comes from the practice that this body follows every step of the government, chasing it like its shadow. The shadow cabinet is headed by the Leader of Opposition and its members are legislators who would likely have been ministers had the opposition been in power.
Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK have been following the institutionalised system of a shadow cabinet. According to this author’s research, almost all Ministers in these Governments have held a post in the shadow cabinet before.* In the UK, every Prime Minister, going back to 1963 had held some portfolio in the shadow cabinet of their party (apart from the post of Leader of Opposition), before ascending to the post. Similarly, all but one Prime Minister had held a shadow cabinet portfolio going back to 1975 in Australia and New Zealand. India, on the other hand, has not considered this a priority. Whereas this apathetic attitude of the initial years after independence may be attributed to a fragmented opposition, the situation is different now.
There have been a few attempts made previously at establishing shadow governments, by either civil society activists or opposition parties themselves. In Kerala, it was civil society; in Gujarat, it was the Congress and in Maharashtra, it was the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. These attempts have either not been able to materialise into something concrete or have not gained enough traction about the same in media reports. Haryana has seen an announcement for the same by the Congress. It has also been recently reported that the BJP Delhi Unit is exploring the idea of forming a shadow cabinet to “track and monitor” the functioning of the Kejriwal government.
Benefits of a system of shadow cabinet
The parliament, just like any other legislative body has primarily two functions – law-making function, ordinarily carried out by the government and keeping a check on the executive government (the President, Prime Minister and Council of Ministers), carried out by the opposition. The opposition, therefore, must ensure that it has effective measures and methods of holding the government accountable. To reverse its lack of impact (as seen by recent elections) demands innovation in parliamentary practice. When individual MPs are assigned to keep an eye on specific ministries, not based on party practices but as a larger system of parliamentary procedure, it is likely to serve as an effective method to counter the government.
The benefits are twofold; first, to the individual MPs, and second, to the parties in opposition as a whole. For individual MPs, having a shot at leadership roles within the parliament and outside of party structures shall provide an incentive to perform better as MPs – to participate in debates more often and ask tough questions to the government. This is likely to raise the overall level of debate in Parliament. According to the author’s research, in the 16th Lok Sabha, out of 571 (number is higher since Members elected through by-elections are also being considered), only 147 MPs had participated in more debates and only 233 MPs had asked more question than the national average during their tenures.* Further, after attaining a position in the shadow cabinet, an MP will gain the expertise and knowledge specific to a ministry, which will hold them in good stead if their party forms government.
Getting prominence at the national level and the possibility of being a minister shall also increase their chances of re-election immensely. Currently, MPs are able to obtain this expertise and knowledge by being members of Parliamentary Committees on specific subjects, such as External Affairs, Agriculture, Information Technology, etc. MPs belonging to the Opposition parties are appointed as Chairpersons to some (not all subjects) of these Committees. This may take the form of a proto-shadow cabinet. However, these Committees also include members from the ruling party and therefore the ‘Oppositional’ nature of a shadow cabinet may not be reflected here. Further, the Committees usually produce reports on government policy, and it is on the basis of these reports that the government is questioned in Parliament. The role of these Committees is to enhance the debate within the house and they may not be equipped for the public outreach that shadow cabinets will be required to do in order to strengthen their image as an alternative government.
For opposition parties, a shadow government provides an opportunity to try out different MPs in leadership roles in the parliament, allowing the parties to be in a much better position to choose ministers when in power, basing this decision on the MPs’ performance as shadow cabinet ministers. It also gives the opposition a chance to show an alternative for the governance of the country.
In the current circumstances, institutionalisation of a shadow cabinet would benefit the recognition of the Leader of the Opposition (LoP). It has been argued that the position of LoP is a statutory position and therefore must be recognised without the requirement of a minimum threshold of numerical strength. The leader of a shadow cabinet is the Leader of the Opposition and in a system where it is institutionalised, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha will not only statutorily but also conventionally (even if a shadow cabinet is established through practice, not law) be bound to recognise a Leader of the Opposition in the lower house.
Criticisms and Responses
The most common criticism against a system of shadow governments is that it does not afford an opportunity to MPs to become well-rounded and informed on all subject matters, and that expertise is often harmful since ministries do not run in silos. However, this criticism is unfounded, since MPs with limited experience are not appointed as ministers, and a similar scenario will be seen with shadow cabinets. MPs will have to show their capabilities through knowledge and experience in order to become shadow cabinet ministers. MPs are not permanently appointed to shadow one ministry alone; just as a cabinet undergoes reshuffles, shadow cabinets go through the same process. Therefore, this would rather enable MPs to be better equipped with knowledge and expertise of procedures and subject matters across ministries.
Another issue with the system particularly relevant to India, is the multi-party system often resulting in the absence of a united opposition. How can a system of shadow government, premised on a single opposition work with a disjointed opposition? Which party shall shadow which ministries? These issues are not central to the institutionalization of shadow governments as much as they are about the actual organization of the opposition. Even after the opposition organizes itself and forms a shadow cabinet, differences may certainly arise, but such differences do arise between government coalition partners as well. Presenting a united opposition bodes well for all parties and no party would ordinarily exit the shadow cabinet.
It must be noted that as held in the landmark judgment of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala parliamentary democracy is a basic feature of the Constitution of India. So, any practice that furthers parliamentary democracy must be considered essential to the furtherance of the principles of the Constitution. A system of shadow cabinet, therefore, will not only be constitutionally viable but also desirable.
Therefore, a system of shadow cabinet shall reinfuse the sense of constructive opposition and responsible government in a parliamentary system of government. Whichever government takes the initiative, or at least accepts the suggestion of institutionalizing shadow governments, will go a long way in establishing its credentials towards its commitment to inclusive, transparent and accountable governance.
* Author’s Note: For the research on Prime Ministers of the UK, Australia and New Zealand a list of PMs from the respective countries was drawn up and each PM was looked up to ascertain whether they were a part of any shadow cabinet before ascending to the position of the leader of their party, and subsequently Prime Minister. For the research on questions asked and debates participated in by Indian MPs, data about individual MPs was downloaded from the PRS Legislative Research Website, data was cleaned and Excel formulae were used to reach the conclusion.