Repeat performance

Opposition Sans LoP

Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

At the first meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party, it is reported that Party President Rahul Gandhi urged the new MPs to be more aggressive. “You are going to enjoy yourself, you are going to shout a little more than usual…,” he said adding that no institution is going to support them in this country.
It is not very clear from media reports what exactly is conveyed through this advice, but it gives an idea about the 17th Lok Sabha, which is to start shortly and the role the Opposition is preparing to play. The floor leader in the Lok Sabha will set the agenda, decide the strategies, and coordinate with other Opposition parties and the government for the party as usual.
The Lok Sabha elected in 2019, like the previous one, will include Opposition without a LoP (Leader of Opposition) who is granted Cabinet member rank as no party has the minimum strength of 10 per cent of total membership as per the ruling given by the first Speaker GV Mavlankar. The biggest party, the Congress, has won 52 seats, three short of the number required to earn the status of LoP. The party, it seems, may not claim the post in this repeat performance.
That ruling has been incorporated in the Directions for the Functioning of the Lok Sabha. But, significantly, the name LoP is not mentioned in it or in the legislation of 1998 concerning the facilities to be given to leaders and whips of recognised parties and groups.
Under the rules, for recognising a Parliamentary Party or Group, the Speaker has to ensure that the association of members who want to form a parliamentary party must have announced at the time of General elections a distinct ideology and programme of parliamentary work on which they were elected. They must have an organisation, both inside and outside the House, and strength equal at least to the quorum fixed for parliamentary sitting, that is, one-tenth of the total number of members of the House.
These Directions, incorporated in The Leaders and Chief Whips of Recognised Parties and Groups in Parliament (Facilities) Act, 1998 prescribe the precise number of members required for recognition as a Parliamentary Group as not less than 15 and not more than 24 for Rajya Sabha, and not less than 30 and not more than 54 in the Lok Sabha and for recognition as a Political Party, not less than 25 for Rajya Sabha and 55 for Lok Sabha.
Confusion prevails over this matter because of the statute of 1977, which defines LoP as the leader of the party in Opposition with the greatest numerical strength and “recognised as such” by the Speaker and also fixes its salary and status as equal to a Cabinet minister.
The failure to present a united Opposition to the ruling BJP in the election despite frantic efforts by many regional leaders is in the background of the present Lok Sabha and cannot be erased easily from people’s memory. Citizens seem to be as anxiously waiting to see how Opposition parties will perform their parliamentary duties as they keep speculating on what the ruling party will do in its second innings.
In the past, Lok Sabhas led by Nehru and also Rajiv Gandhi faced a similar situation of LoP– less Lok Sabhas. The Supreme Court dismissed a PIL in 2014 requesting that the status of LoP be granted to the biggest Opposition party, the Congress, on the basis that the court cannot decide on political issues. The CJI said that “a ruling given by the Speaker in the chamber of the House is not amenable to judicial review”. The Congress was then short of 11 members to claim the post.
Subsequently, on a petition of an NGO regarding the selection of chairperson and members of the Lok Pal which required the inclusion of the LoP in the selection process, it was decided that the leader of the biggest Opposition party can fill the place of the LoP.
LoP is a very important post in Parliament. But, there is substantial difference in the role actually played by the LoP in British Parliament and in India’s Lok Sabha. LoP is part of the “Shadow Cabinet” – a unique feature developed in British parliamentary system, which has been copied in some Commonwealth countries. It consists of a group of some senior Opposition spokespersons who form an alternative Cabinet under the LoP.
This group examines and debates within itself every legislation coming before Parliament, makes constructive suggestions for changes and improvements, and also informs the public thus enriching Parliament work. It questions the Government and holds it responsible to the people. It suggests alternative policies if it finds it necessary. An ideal Shadow Cabinet serves to pool the resources of the ruling and Opposition parties to provide a good law-making body.
Members of the Shadow Cabinet, normally selected by the LoP take their parliamentary work seriously in the House and in committees with a view to enhancing the work of Parliament and not to block. They perform a positive role and not negative. In Australia, the members of the Shadow Cabinet are elected in the Labour Party.
These members, it is described, “shadow” or “mark” each individual member of the real Cabinet in power. It is the responsibility of the Shadow Cabinet to critically examine every policy and action of the government and also offer alternatives. Constructive criticism with readiness to provide feasible solutions where it finds government policies defective is its primary purpose. It is supposed to keep itself prepared to assume office when opportunity arises. In some countries, these members are even nicknamed as “Shadow Ministers”.
They are known by different names – “spokespersons” in the UK and New Zealand, “Opposition critic” in Canada, and “Cabinet Fantome” (ghost cabinet) in France. In the US, where the two-party system is well established, the second largest party is also the Opposition party. Its leader, recognised as the Minority Leader holds the position of the LoP.
In the US, a form of non-political Opposition party has emerged known as Green Shadow Cabinet. It includes prominent scientists, community and labour leaders, social workers, senior citizens and others who follow government policies and programmes closely and offer alternatives wherever they consider necessary. It is a form of public participation in governance.
In India, there is no Shadow Cabinet at the centre though the idea is not unknown. An experiment was made in Maharashtra in 2005 by the BJP and Shiv Sena combine to keep the ruling Congress in check.
Opposition in Indian Parliament is increasingly becoming noisy and unruly and surprisingly, the smaller the Opposition, the bigger the noise. Partly, it is due to lack of understanding of the responsibility of the Opposition in Parliament as a responsible integral force in the legislative body. Negative role will only help autocracy of the majority. It is time that it wakes up to shoulder its responsibility and resume its positive functions lest it should lose them and become defunct.——INFA