If there’s outrage today in the Congress over the silence on granting its leader the status of Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, the same party, when it had 415 MPs in the House, denied that very status to the party which came in second.
In 1984, the last time a single party secured a majority in Lok Sabha, the Congress had 415 MPs. The newly formed BJP was down to two MPs. It was another newly formed party, the Telugu Desam Party, which came in second with 30 MPs.
The Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, which still forms the basis for recognition of the Leader of Opposition and provides for benefits and status, had been enacted in 1977 but no Leader of Opposition was appointed in 1984. P Upendra, the leader of the TDP in Lok Sabha who later went on to become a central minister, was never appointed Leader of Opposition. The Speaker was Congress veteran Balram Jakhar. Contacted by The Sunday Express, he said he couldn’t recall “any trouble or issue over this matter, and whatever it was, must be a matter of record”.
Subhash Kashyap, then secretary-general of Lok Sabha, recalls it clearly: “It would be a betrayal of confidences of several people, some of whom are now dead, but there were goings-on in the Speaker’s chambers, when three people from the TDP walked in and asked for the post.”
“They were told that it would not be possible as we operated on precedents in the House of Commons and that G V Mavalankar, India’s first Speaker, had on the same basis of too-small-an-Opposition established such a precedent that Lok Sabha had not designated a Leader of Opposition till 1969.”
“There was no fuss, no demand, nothing. They went away and P Upendra became leader of the parliamentary group and parliamentary party. He was accorded privileges and protocol, but never designated as Leader of Opposition,” Kashyap said. With the start of the coalition era in 1989, things became complicated and the two-party House of Commons rule too simple to take recourse to because very often the single-largest parties were sitting in Opposition during the 1990s.
In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party emerged as the single-largest with 195 members and he was recognised as Leader of Opposition. But after the BJP withdrew support to the National Front and Chandrashekhar was sworn in as Prime Minister — with outside support of the Congress, and deemed totally dependent on it — the BJP’s appeal to get the post of Leader of Opposition was acceded to and the Congress was no longer seen as a party in Opposition. So, L K Advani was recognised as Leader of Opposition effective December 24, 1990.
The 1977 Act says nothing on any criterion that must be used to recognise an Opposition. But those supportive of the BJP view that the Congress does not make the cut now are citing directions by Speakers who have made “10 per cent of the strength of the House rule”, and invoking the law for facilities to be granted to parliamentary party leaders and whips.
The Leaders and Chief Whips of Recognised Parties and Groups in Parliament (Facilities) Act 1988, after an amendment in 2000, recognises a parliamentary ‘group’ as one which has members between 30 and 54 but a ‘party’ as one with at least 55 members.
Former Law Minister Salman Khursheed says “there is little that anyone gains by holding back the Leader of Opposition recognition. It sends out negative signals about intent, spirit of cooperation and how Parliament must function. Also, with appointments dependent on there being a Leader of Opposition, legal impediments could be created.” Jakhar says “it’s about a big heart and this is a small thing which has implications. Why should the Indian Parliament not have a Leader of Opposition?”