After a protracted wrangle, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan has formally rejected the Congress’s claim to the post of leader of opposition in the House. This is a setback to the Congress party, even as it has yet to come to terms with its diminution to a tally of 44. The denial of LOp status may not rule out Congress participation in the panels for crucial appointments — some allow for the substitution of the LOp with the leader of the largest party of the opposition, while in others, the rules can be tweaked to allow for such a replacement. But the largest opposition party will now not be accorded primacy in House functioning. Mahajan has claimed that she had no personal discretion in the matter, and that she went by directions of past speakers and precedents where the largest opposition party was not given the post of LOp if its members constituted less than 10 per cent of the House. But by letting a restrictive reading of the rules prevail in a matter that called for a broader political and institutional view, the Narendra Modi government has done a disservice to Parliament and to itself.
To be sure, there are precedents for the speaker’s decision and it is also true that they belong to times when the Congress was in power at the Centre. But the BJP cannot point to Congress arrogance or pettiness as an excuse for its own conduct. For one, the government-opposition dynamic has been radically transformed in the years since the 1980s. The opposition space is not only more competitive and crowded, it is also bristling with greater assertiveness. It is part of an intricate and evolving system of checks and balances that seeks to prevent executive authority from becoming overweening. Also, the Modi government has just come to power at the Centre riding an unprecedented mandate. In its moment of strength, it must show greater generosity to its opponents — and more deference to democratic traditions and conventions.
The Congress would be deeply mistaken if it were to see the refusal of the post of LOp as a licence to be obstructionist in Parliament and to deny its own stakes in the peaceful running of the House. By doing so, the party would only be weakening itself further. This is, in fact, a call for the Congress to be smarter, more intelligent and strategic in marshalling its depleted resources in Parliament — to make itself heard and to hold the government to account.