Now for a twist in rules to save face

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The Congress thinks that democracy will be in peril if its leader is not the Leader of Opposition. Its leaders are resorting to mischievous interpretation of Parliament's rules and statutes. This is puerile nonsense

Ever since the Congress’s crushing defeat in the recent Lok Sabha election, many acolytes of the Nehru-Gandhi family and Congress sympathisers are demanding that the leader of this party must be designated the Leader of the Opposition, although it has just 44 seats — much below the 10 per cent rule that has prevailed in the House for 60 years. Under rules formulated by GV Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha and followed since then, a party must have at least 10 per cent of the strength in order to qualify to be designated as a parliamentary party and the leader of the largest such parliamentary party in the opposition ranks is designated as the Leader of the Opposition.

Those who are mischievously interpreting statutes and rules and arguing on behalf of the Congress, do not want the country to know that throughout Jawaharlal Nehru’s prime ministership, India never had a LOP because no political party commanded one-tenth of the strength of the Lok Sabha. Similarly, there was no LOP for 15 of the 16 years Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and during 1984-89 when Rajiv Gandhi was at the helm.

According to Kaul and Shakdher, the conditions laid down by Mavalankar for an association of members to be recognised as a parliamentary party were as follows: They must have a distinct ideology and programme which they have announced prior to the election and on which they have been elected and ‘they should form a homogenous unit capable of developing into a well-knit entity’;  they should have an organisation both inside and outside the House, their number should not be less than the quorum fixed to constitute a sitting of the House, which is one-tenth of the total membership.

These principles were later embodied in Direction 121 (1) of the Directions by the Speaker, Lok Sabha. Many decades later, they were incorporated in The Leaders and Chief Whips of Recognised Parties and Groups in Parliament (facilities) Act, 1998.

In the present case, this means that a political party must have at least 55 MPs to be recognised as a parliamentary party and to get the LOP position. India got its first Leader of Opposition in 1969 — a good 17 years after the first general election held in 1952. Ram Subhag Singh became the LOP when the Congress split and 60 of its MPs moved to the opposition benches. He remained in office until the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in December, 1970.

In the 1971 poll, no party was worthy of securing the LOP status because the largest party in opposition to the Indira Gandhi Government was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with 25 seats. In the seventh Lok Sabha constituted in 1980 and the eighth Lok Sabha constituted in 1984, the Congress registered massive victories and won 353 and 404 seats respectively. There was no LOP in in either case.

The largest party in opposition in 1984 was the Telugu Desam Party with 30 MPs. In the 10th Lok Sabha, the Congress returned to power heading a minority Government with 232 seats. The BJP secured 120 seats and its leader was given the LOP status. In the 11th Lok Sabha election, again the BJP with 161 held the LOP position. In the 12th Lok Sabha formed in 1998 and the 13th Lok Sabha constituted a year later, the Congress with 141 seats and 114 seats respectively, got this status.

In the 14th and the 15th Lok Sabhas, the Congress came to  power under the United Progressive Alliance umbrella, and the BJP secured 145 and 116 seats respectively to retain the LOP status.

The cycle of success and defeat caught up with the Congress once again in the election to the 16th Lok Sabha, but this time its fortunes have nose-dived; it has won just 44 seats. Meanwhile, the BJP has secured a handsome victory with 282 seats. Congress leaders argue that even if they do not have 10 per cent strength they must be declared a parliamentary party and given the LOP status because, now, under several statutes, the LOP is on the committees to select chairpersons and members of the Central Information Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Lokpal and the National Human Rights Commission. Even this argument is flawed and is being advanced to mislead the people. The truth is that the absence of a LOP will not affect the appointments process vis-a-vis the CVC and the CIC because both these Acts provide for the leader of the largest parliamentary group to stand in for the LOP — if there is no LOP.

Even in regard to selection of the chairperson and members of the Lokpal and the National Human Rights Commission, the absence of a LOP will not hinder the process. Both these Acts unequivocally declare that no appointment will be invalid “merely by reason of any vacancy in the Selection Committee”.  If need be, these Acts can be amended to allow the leader of the largest parliamentary group to be in these selection committees. But, even without the amendment, the appointments can be made.

The history of Lok Sabha elections shows that whenever the Congress won the Parliament elections handsomely, the opposition was decimated and no opposition party secured even 10 per cent of the seats to be entitled to the status of LOP. Even in the days of the Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress showed no magnanimity to relax the rules and designate an opposition leader as the  Leader of Opposition in all these Lok Sabhas.

On the other hand, whenever the Congress was defeated, as in 1977, 1989, 1996, 1998 and 1999, it won enough seats for its leader to be designated the LOP.  However, the Narendra Modi-wave has blotched the Congress’s copybook.

For the first time since the Lok Sabha was constituted in 1952, the party has failed to secure enough seats to be designated as a parliamentary party. Also, for the first time since 1952, a single party has comprehensively trounced the Congress, and this could be the reason why the party has suffered the fate that awaited its opponents from 1952 to 1971, and again in 1971, 1980 and 1984.

Now, the Congress thinks “democracy will be in peril” if its leader is not the Leader of Opposition. Its leaders are resorting to mischievous interpretation of Parliament’s rules and statutes. Those who know the history of Parliament will say that this is puerile nonsense.

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