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08 July, 2014

Form and substance of democracy

BRP Bhaskar
 Gulf Today

The Congress party’s hankering after the post of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s eagerness to deny it betray their inability to distinguish between the form and substance of democracy.

The law stipulates that an opposition party must have 10 per cent of the total strength of house, or 55 members, for the Speaker to recognise its floor leader as the Leader of the Opposition. In this year’s parliamentary elections, the Congress secured only 44 seats in 543-member Lok Sabha, its lowest tally so far.

On Saturday, Mallikarjuna Kharge, who has been named leader of the Congress party in the house, met Speaker Sumitra Mahajan along with leaders of its partners in the United Progressive Alliance, and urged her to treat the UPA, which is a pre-poll alliance, as a single unit.

The UPA has 59 members in the Lok Sabha. However, it is an alliance, and not a “party” which is the term used in the relevant law.

A designated Leader of the Opposition is not a necessary element of Indian democracy. There was no designated Opposition leader for 35 of the 62 years since the Lok Sabha came into being in 1952.

In six of the 15 previous Lok Sabhas the main opposition party did not have sufficient strength to claim the post of Leader of the Opposition. That includes all the three houses of the time of Jawaharlal Nehru.

The undivided Communist Party of India, which was the largest opposition group in the Lok Sabha while Nehru was prime minister, did not have the numerical strength for its leader, AK Gopalan, to be designated as Leader of the Opposition. However, quality made up for the shortfall in quantity. Along with distinguished parliamentarians like Hiren Mukherjee, Renu Chakravartty and Indrajit Gupta of his own party and JB Kripalani, HV Kamath and Nath Pai of the Praja Socialist Party, Gopalan kept the government on its toes.

Kripalani and other PSP leaders often entered the Lok Sabha through by-elections after being defeated in the general election. Nehru would campaign against them in the general election, but not in by-elections. This was seen as indicative of his desire to ensure that the opposition was strong, even if it was small.

The post of Leader of the Opposition acquired increased clout when a law passed in 1977 granted the person holding it the rank as well as salary and perks of Cabinet minister.  

Technically, the leader of a parliamentary party is first among equals. However, it is not unusual for the party to nominate someone other than its tallest leader for the post. The Congress has unwittingly devalued the post by installing Mallikarjuna Kharge as the Leader when its President, Sonia Gandhi, and Vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, are both members of the house.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu distanced himself from the issue of designating Kharge as Leader of the Opposition, saying it was the Speaker’s domain. However, the BJP publicly stated that legally and politically the Congress could not claim the post.

The law is, of course, not in the Congress party’s favour. However, it has a legitimate political claim. It had polled 19.3 per cent in the election, which was the second highest after the BJP’s 31.0 per cent and way above 4.1 per cent secured by the Bahujan Samaj Party, which came next.

In the last Lok Sabha, the BJP, by virtue of its strength of 116 members, got the post of Leader of the Opposition. However, its vote share at that time was only 18.8 per cent, slightly lower than what the Congress got this time. Clearly there is a case for revising the criterion for grant of recognition as Leader of the Opposition.

The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha has a statutory role in the selection of important functionaries like the Lokpal, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Chairman and members of the National Human Rights Commission.  The exclusion of the Congress party’s leader from the process will be a travesty of the law. 

The Congress’s plan to move the court will give the Judiciary the final say in this matter which is best handled by the Executive and the Legislative branches.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 8, 2014.

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