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Opposition without a head
While an effective opposition is as necessary as a functioning government for the success of parliamentary democracy, in the 16th Lok Sabha, the opposition stands badly fragmented. Having been reduced to a dismal, below-50 seat tally, the main party in opposition, the Congress, is not even entitled to have its leader recognised as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.
The well-established principle and practice, right from the first Lok Sabha, has been that the leader of the largest party in opposition is recognised as leader of the opposition, provided the party has the number of seats required to constitute a sitting of the House. That is, at minimum, the party’s seat share should be one-tenth of the total membership, the same as the quorum fixed for a sitting of the House.
Between 1952 and 1969, there was no opposition party with the requisite strength and, therefore, there was no officially recognised leader of the opposition, even though some outstanding personalities occupied the opposition benches and led their parties during this period. In 1969, in the fourth Lok Sabha, following the split in the Congress, the leader of the Congress (O), Ram Subhag Singh, became the first person to be formally recognised and given the status of leader of the opposition. During the sixth Lok Sabha (1977-80), we had Y.B. Chavan, C.M. Stephen and Jagjivan Ram as successive leaders of the opposition. Again, during the seventh and eighth Lok Sabhas (1980-1989), no party in opposition had the requisite strength. During subsequent Lok Sabhas (ninth to 15th), covering the period 1989 to 2014, we had duly recognised leaders of the opposition, including Rajiv Gandhi, L.K. Advani, A.B. Vajpayee, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Sharad Pawar, Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj.
Until 1977, there was no emolument or salary attached to the office of leader of the opposition. After the sixth general election in 1977, which brought in the Janata Party government, the Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act was passed. The act extends to leaders of the opposition in both Houses a certain official status and facilities, including a salary, allowances and perks equivalent to a cabinet minister.
The 1977 act defines the leader of the opposition as that member of the Rajya Sabha or Lok Sabha who leads the opposition party with the greatest numerical strength and is recognised as such by the presiding officer of the House. Although the definition in the act does not spell out the 10 per cent membership requirement, it is clearly implied in the recognition condition. For the Lok Sabha, the criteria for a party to be recognised as the opposition, laid down in Direction 121(c), is that it should at least have “a strength equal to the quorum fixed to constitute a sitting of the House, that is one-tenth of the total number of members of the House”.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, it seems there shall be several leaders in the opposition heading their respective parties in the House but no officially recognised leader of the opposition.
While it is entirely within the jurisdiction of the speaker to extend to opposition leaders privileges like office accommodation on Parliament premises, some secretarial assistance, preference in the seating arrangement of the House and speaking time during proceedings, etc, he cannot legitimately waive or dilute the requirement of 10 per cent membership. Also, if any effort is made by parties to form an alliance to constitute more than 10 per cent of the House and elect a leader to get around the requirement, it would be most unacceptable and may amount to defrauding the public exchequer.
It is being asked what would happen to the laws, rules and conventions that outline a role for the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha in selection committees for the appointments of the CVC, CBI chief, Lokpal etc. It should be quite clear that the concerned provisions would have to be modified to provide for the eventuality of there being no recognised leader of the opposition. Till such modifications are made, the slot for the leader of the opposition would remain vacant and the concerned bodies would function with the other members.
Last, it is important to remember that the parliamentary system works largely on precedents and established practices. In the 62 years since the first Lok Sabha came into being, a leader of a party with a strength of less than 10 per cent of the total membership has never been designated leader of the opposition. The roots of the 10 per cent membership requirement can be traced to the British parliamentary system, where the leader of the opposition is supposed to head the shadow cabinet. The leader of the opposition has to be in a position to make the sitting of the House, and if need be, provide an alternative government. It is for that reason that he is paid a salary and allowances from public funds and it is for the same reason that he must satisfy the condition of being the leader of an opposition party which has at least 10 per cent of the members of the House on its rolls.