Jagdeep Dhankhar was elected the 14th Vice-President of India on Saturday. His huge victory margin indicates that he managed to draw support even from the Opposition ranks, a fact underlined by the Prime Minister in his congratulatory message. This could be seen as an endorsement of Dhankhar’s credentials as a leader to hold high office as much as it signifies the failure of the Opposition to stay together in an important political contest.
The V-P, as the chair of Rajya Sabha, has the onerous task of conducting important legislative business in a very polarised House. The immediate task for the new V-P would be to take the Opposition into confidence and, while drawing the line on discipline, to ensure that it’s done with an intent to accommodate rather than exclude. Dhankhar’s formidable record as a politician — he was a Union minister in the Chandra Shekhar ministry in 1990, MLA in Rajasthan and Governor in West Bengal — and a lawyer — he is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court — should stand him in good stead in the V-P’s office. He joins an illustrious group of leaders — from philosopher-statesman S Radhakrishnan to the much-liked Venkaiah Naidu — who upheld the dignity of the office and won the respect and admiration of MPs across party lines. Unfortunately, Dhankhar’s tenure as Governor of West Bengal was marked by frequent run-ins with the TMC government. That’s an image he may need to live down as V-P since this office, like that of the Governor, expects its occupant to rise above partisan interests and preside over the Upper House in a fair and objective manner. In fact, the TMC, the second-largest opposition group in Parliament after the Congress with 36 MPs, took a narrow-minded decision to abstain from the V-P election. Earning his spurs in a coalition era, Dhankhar, surely, should let that history come in the way as he engages with the Opposition, which includes the TMC. The TMC, too, should realise that Rajya Sabha isn’t the place to fight its old Raj Bhavan battles.
The challenge for Dhankhar, however, would be to persuade the government to allow the Opposition its say in the Rajya Sabha — his pre-BJP career as a Janata and Congress legislator should come in handy. The onus of making Parliament more productive lies with the government, which needs to reach out to the Opposition to facilitate the smooth functioning of both the Houses. Dialogue and debate are essential features of parliamentary democracy and the executive ought to walk that extra mile to engage with the Opposition and ensure that the latter contributes to legislating. Unfortunately, that’s not been the case in recent times: The current session itself has been marred by the suspensions of more than 20 Opposition MPs. Dhankhar may have to don the robe of not only an impartial arbiter but also a persuasive negotiator whose primary intent shall be to protect the Rajya Sabha’s sanctity as an inclusive and participatory legislative space. Welcome, Mr Vice President.