Why India Needs a Shadow Cabinet

Many have condemned the tragic lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh late last month, but few have used the term ‘policy diversion’ to decry it. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said exactly that, talking on the incident in New York recently.

Jaitley has raised alarm in the past over how different unfortunate incidents have diverted the attention away from his government’s policy work. But India’s political discourse has rarely ever been known to stick to policy talk. In the present run-up to the state elections in Bihar for example, much of the talk has been based on caste identity and communal politics - not farmer welfare or social development. This, in a state that has grown increasingly infamous for its deeply entrenched poverty and issues of law and order.

One could dismiss the electoral campaigning in Bihar as ‘politicking’. Many assume that the common man is more easily drawn by rallies that call on his identity rather than by furious debates over wonky policy talk. But even parliamentary discourse is often overshadowed by politicking. In the latest session of Parliament this monsoon season, the Rajya Sabha recorded a productivity of just nine percent. Even in the Lok Sabha, where the BJP has a majority on its own, productivity stood at 48%. Countless sittings were adjourned amidst sloganeering from the opposition, many calling the session a ‘washout’.

Fiery sloganeering against the government might make for good television, but it doesn’t help in enforcing accountability on the government for its primary job of governance. What India needs is a coherent and informative voice from the opposition in Parliament on issues of policy and governance. The answer: a shadow cabinet.

Shadow cabinets are cabinets run by the opposition, consisting of opposition leaders who individually keep track of the activities of individual ministers in the actual government. Shadow cabinets are a feature of parliamentary government in countries such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. Yet, while India chose to adopt many of its governmental practices from Great Britain, it curiously chose to leave out the concept of a ‘shadow cabinet’. If anything, shadow cabinets are particularly relevant to India’s form of government - one of large ministries with multiple departments and overlapping responsibilities. Ever so often, decision and policy making on any given issue involves multiple ministries and departments, thereby making it difficult for the public (and parliamentarians) to evaluate the performance of individual ministers, or see the exact role that they play. A shadow cabinet would help pin responsibility on individuals more accurately and point out the slackers in government. In addition, they would help streamline parliamentary opposition to specific issues of governance and, in turn, refine political discourse.

Critics might point out that the parliamentary opposition is often heterogeneous and might not concur enough in order to create a shadow cabinet. But that is true of coalition governments too. If governments have a responsibility to put up a united voice, oppositions too are more effective when they are united. A better-organized opposition, in fact, would lend greater legitimacy to the Leader of Opposition, making him more accountable to other members in the opposition regardless of their party. Plus, it would also help voters evaluate the work of the opposition more meaningfully.

Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly asserted the need to keep the spotlight on his government’s development agenda. Jaitley has often concurred, bemoaning ‘policy diversions’. Both of them have a point. Maybe it’s time for the opposition to experiment with a reform that could add value to political discourse in India. It might not make for good television, but it’ll certainly help make a good government.

(c) 2015, The Huffington Post