Does the Congress deserve to be given the official status of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha? Possibly not. However, should it be given that status? Definitely yes. And am I contradicting myself? Even if it looks like it, I’m not. So, now, let me explain.
First, let’s take the question whether the Congress deserves this post. There are two reasons which suggest it does not.
To begin with — and I won’t go into the details which are technical, legal and, even, obtuse — at least one cogent and comprehensive interpretation of parliamentary rules and legislation leads to the conclusion that if an opposition party has less than one-tenth of the seats in the Lok Sabha (i.e. 55) it cannot be recognised as the official Leader of the Opposition.
Speaker Ganesh Mavalankar’s 1953 Direction 121 (c) as well as the 1977 Leader of the Opposition Act read in conjunction with the 1998 Leaders and Whips of Parties and Groups (Facilities) Act is the basis of this interpretation.
Furthermore, according to this interpretation, the Speaker has no discretion in the matter. She cannot exercise a personal opinion that is contrary to what the rules and acts of Parliament are believed to lay down. She doesn’t have the authority to do so.
The second argument is easier to follow and, for some, more convincing. Parliament works by precedent. And the clear precedent is there has only been an official Leader of the Opposition when the single-largest opposition party had at least one-tenth of the seats.
When it didn’t — and that was the case up till 1969 and, again, in the 1980s — there was no Leader of the Opposition. This is, therefore, a well-established precedent. Can it be overturned to please the Congress party? The answer is neither simple nor undisputed. But it’s likely to be no.
Now, the Congress has tried to circumvent the above arguments by making two points. First, different acts passed by Parliament in the last two decades require a Leader of the Opposition to choose the CIC, CVC, NHRC, CBI Director and Lokpal.
The Congress claims that without an official Leader of the Opposition this cannot be done.
That’s not really true or, at least, not the full truth. These acts permit the selection to happen when one or more of the selectors is unavailable. So this argument doesn’t really hold.
Second, the Congress claims it has a right to the Leader of the Opposition post on the grounds that it heads a pre-poll coalition (UPA) comprising 60 seats. But none of the parliamentary legislation on this matter recognises polls and alliances.
If it did, the AIADMK, BJD and TMC could conceivably combine and create a bigger alliance with 91 seats, which would have prior claim. So this argument doesn’t hold either.
However, this is not the end of the matter. This only explains why the Congress does not deserve the post. But the leadership of the opposition is an issue that goes beyond the question of merit.
The Congress may not deserve the post but India’s democracy clearly requires there should be a formal Leader of the Opposition. Without it our democracy would be incomplete and diminished. This is, therefore, an issue that also touches upon the bigger and more important morality of our politics.
At this higher level I have no hesitation in saying the Congress should be given the official status. It may not deserve it but India’s democracy requires an official opposition leader. The Congress is just the lucky beneficiary in this instance.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)