Tuesday, August 16th, 2022 01:05:24

Looking For An Opposition Leader

Updated: June 21, 2014 12:51 pm

The first tussle between the Congress party and the BJP-led NDA government in the very first session of the 16th Lok Sabha is going to be over the post of the “Leader of the Opposition” (LOP) in the Lok Sabha that enjoys the rank of a Union Cabinet Minister and receives the same perks, salaries and allowances as that of a Union Cabinet Minister. The LOP is also an important statutory functionary now as he or she serves on several important committees, including the selection panels for the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Director, and members of the Lokpal.

The tussle could have been avoided had the Congress got 55 seats in the Lok Sabha, which is 10 per cent of the total membership of the House. Because, over the last two decades or so, the principal opposition party always got this number of seats. But now the case is different as the Congress has got a historic low of 44 seats. However, the Congress spokespersons are claiming that this 10-per cent requirement is not mandatory and that as the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the Congress “leader” in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, qualifies for the post of the LOP.

Going by “the Salary and Allowances of the Leaders of the Opposition in Parliament Act, 1977”, the Congress party does seem to have a point. According to this Act, “Leader of the Opposition, in relation to either House of Parliament, means that member of the Council of States or the House of the People, as the case may be, who is, for the time being, the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to the government having the greatest numerical strength and recognised as such by the Chairman of the Council of States or the Speaker of the House of the People, as the case may be”.

This Act further explains: “Where there are two or more parties in opposition to the government, in the Council of States or In the House of the People having the same numerical strength, the Chairman of the Council of States or the Speaker of the House of the people, as the case may be, shall, having regard to the status of the parties, recognise any one of the Leaders of such parties as the Leader of the Opposition for the purposes of this section and such recognition shall be final and conclusive.”

What this means is that the Presiding Officer of the House, that is the Speaker in the Lok Sabha or the Chairman in Rajya Sabha as the case may be, has the discretionary power to accord the status of the LOP. But then, the case is not that simple. Over the years, the office of the Speaker has issued many “Directions” for the smooth functioning of the House. Going by the eighth edition of the collection of these “Directions”, brought out by the Lok Sabha Secretariat in 2014, there is the Direction 121. It says: “In recognising a Parliamentary Party or Group the Speaker shall take into consideration the following principles:—

1) An association of members who propose to form a Parliam-entary Party—

(a) shall have announced at the time of the general elections a distinct ideology and programme of Parliamentary work on which they have been returned to the House;

(b) shall have an organisation both inside and outside the House; and

(c) shall have at least a strength equal to the quorum fixed to constitute a sitting of the House, that is one-tenth of the total number of members of the House.

(2) An association of members to form a Parliamentary Group shall satisfy the conditions specified in parts (a) and (b) of clause (i) and shall have at least a strength of 30 members.”

If one goes by this “Direction”, the Congress has a weak case. In any case, this is also a fact that so far in the history of India’s parliamentary democracy there has been no LOP whose party has got less than 10 per cent of the strength of the Lok Sabha, which is 55 seats. No wonder why until December 17, 1969, in the absence of any opposition party getting the required 10 per cent of seats of the total strength of the House, India did not have a recognisable Opposition leader, otherwise a normal phenomenon in every parliamentary democracy. It was Dr. Ram Subagh Singh of the breakaway Congress (Congress O), which had 60 members following the Congress split on November 16, 1969, who became independent India’s first LOP.

But this phenomenon proved short-lived as, except in between 1977 and 1980, when the Congress was in the opposition, no opposition party could muster the required number to claim the exalted post, which was made equivalent in status and perks to a cabinet rank minister through a special Act passed by the sixth Lok Sabha. It was only when the hung parliaments became normality, beginning in 1989, that India produced LOPs on a regular basis, though the case of the late Rajiv Gandhi in the ninth Lok Sabha (1989-91) needs a separate treatment.

When the VP Singh government fell after the BJP withdrew its support to him in 1990, leading to the split in the ruling Janata Dal, the minority Chandrashekhar government came into being with the outside support of the Congress party, whose leader Rajiv Gandhi was the LOP during the V P Singh regime. The Congress then was the single largest party with 196 seats in the 543-member House. Rajiv Gandhi refused to relinquish his post by arguing that by not allowing the Chandrashekhar government to fall, the Congress did not cease to be in opposition. The Congress contention was that “the party in opposition” was the one which was not “the party in power” or “the governing party”.

However, the then Speaker Rabi Ray was not convinced of this argument. He made instead L K Advani, the leader of the BJP, which had 86 members in the House, the LOP. In fact, Ray’s decision had disturbed then many constitutional experts. Their point was that Ray’s treatment of the case was not fair since it was improper to expect a leader of a party of nearly 200 members to sit as an ordinary member of the House, while the leader of a much smaller party occupied the prominent seat and enjoyed various payments and prerequisites, position and priority because it decided to oppose the government. The point here is that the power to recognise the LOP finally resides with the Speaker who may not be satisfied only with the required numerical strength. In any case, on this particular occasion both Rajiv Gandhi and L K Advani had fulfilled the minimum criterion of their respective parties having 55 seats. Finally, there is yet another parliamentary provision that weakens the Congress case further. This is “The leaders and chief whips of recognised parties and groups in Parliament (facilities) Act, 1998”, which came into force on February 5, 1999. In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires:

(a) “recognised group” means-

(i) in relation to the Council of States, every party which has a strength of not less than fifteen members and not more than twenty-four members in the Council;

(ii) in relation to the House of the People, every party which has a strength of not less than thirty members and not more than fifty-four members in the House;

(b) “recognised party” means,-

(i) in relation to the Council of States, every party which has a strength of not less than twenty-five members in the Council;

(ii) in relation to the House of the People, every party which has a strength of not less than fifty-five members in the House.”

If one goes by this provision, which is quite close to the Speaker’s Direction 121, the Congress cannot claim to be a political party as such in the 16th Lok Sabha. It has been downgraded to the status of a “political group”!

This being the reality, what best could be done is that the Modi government brings some amendments that will enable Mallikarjun Kharge, as the leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha, to have a say in the selection process of the CVC, CBI chief, and Lokpal. As an alternate measure, it could also be proposed that in the absence of an LOP in the Lok Sabha, the LOP in the Rajya Sabha should be the part of the selection process. But if Kharge is allowed that role, he still cannot get the status, salary and perks of a normal leader of the opposition that his party colleague will have in the Rajya Sabha.

By Prakash Nanda


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