‘Differences will arise if laws are steamrolled’: Mallikarjun Kharge
The newly appointed Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress, brings nearly half a century of legislative experience to the post. He spoke to Vinod Sharma on a range of issues. Edited excerpts:
You were only half-LoP in the Lok Sabha from 2014 to 2019 as the Congress lacked the numbers to be the recognised Opposition. By that measure, your LoP status in the Rajya Sabha seems a promotion.
There’s nothing like half a leader. I led a national party which got over 10 crore votes in the general elections. The speaker could have suspended the rule requiring 10% of the House strength to be the recognised Opposition. She (Sumitra Mahajan) did not, nor did the government. Not having the logistical support that’s officially provided to the LoP was no handicap. My party and my leader Sonia Gandhi lent me that support.
The foremost requirement in the role I played was to be a strong Opposition voice on matters that impacted the people, especially the poor, the farmers, and the working class. They (the treasury benches) would insult us by pointing to our numerical weakness. They forgot that they had just two MPs after the 1984 polls. At that time, the Congress did not insult a great leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. My party’s frugal strength never weighed me down. The Rajya Sabha position is no elevation. I’m only a recognised LoP. When Ghulam Nabi Azad took over, we had over 70 members. Today our army is reduced; we have to fight with a bench strength of 36 but there will be no let-up in our battle for the people’s welfare.
The Congress’s Rajya Sabha construct is top-heavy. Its 36 MPs include several frontline leaders. Could there be problems bringing on the same page the likes of Manmohan Singh, AK Antony, P Chidambaram, Anand Sharma, Digvijaya Singh, Ambika Soni, Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Singhvi, Jairam Ramesh and KC Venugopal?
They’re experienced, intelligent people constituting the cream of our party. I’ve known them for long, as I joined the Congress after the 1969 split. I’ll seek their advice. My worry is the allocation of time for important debates the ruling side tends to curtail.
The Congress took divergent stands in the two Houses in the debate on the motion of thanks on the President’s address. The Rajya Sabha debated while there was a logjam in the other House, bringing forth the lack of coordination between the party’s legislative wings.
Such decisions get driven by situations in the Houses. Divergence could be as much on account of government’s divergent approach in the Lok Sabha [where it has a big majority], and the Upper House where the numbers are relatively balanced. Our legislative wings were working together and will continue to do so.
The late Ananth Kumar was the parliamentary affairs minister when you were in Lok Sabha. Even the incumbent, Pralhad Joshi, is from your state of Karnataka. Will the coincidence help?
We might be from the same state but we’ve ideological differences. We’ll cooperate, but it’s the government’s responsibility to take all Opposition parties along — convincingly and not through bulldozer tactics — for the smooth conduct of Parliament.
Your predecessor Ghulam Nabi Azad had cordial working relations with Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. How do you rate your personal equation with them?
Naidu is from Andhra but has been a Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka. I’ve known him well. Now he’s the vice-president and chairperson of our House. We respect the position he holds, and assure him of our support...we expect him to recognise the Opposition’s right to raise and debate issues. As for the PM, he’s de jure the leader of the Lok Sabha but de facto the leader of both houses. We respect the PM, but differences will arise if laws are steamrolled — as was the case with labour reforms and the farm legislation. We won’t accept that the party that has the majority can do anything.
What was your experience when you and the PM were members of committees that appointed chiefs of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Central Vigilance Commission?
The majority view prevailed. I gave dissenting notes (as was the case when an interim CBI director was appointed). They called me a dissenting leader. But reasoned dissent is the Opposition’s prerogative. The problem arose because the PM didn’t consider the other view. Democracy provides for differing perceptions without prejudice or vengeance.
Certain legislation being brought as money bills could be a sticking point in the second half of the Budget session. Your colleagues have urged the Lok Sabha Speaker to ensure bicameral scrutiny of privatisation proposals....
Our job is to scrutinise the bills passed by the Lower House. That ensures robust law-making and safeguards against judicial intervention. We’ll discuss the matter in our party and take a stand. The government’s policy to dismantle and not repair public sector undertakings will impact the common man and the job quotas for the SCs/STs/OBCs. Even profitable PSUs are being shut. That will kill reserved employment, while the private sector which gets lakhs of crores of rupees written off as NPAs is loath to offer opportunities to the weaker sections. That’s why the Rajya Sabha must scrutinise such laws.