The current controversy over the Congress Party’s demand for appointment of a Leader of Opposition in Parliament reflects the state of politics in India at present. The Attorney General Mr. Mukul Rohtagi has ruled out any Congress leader getting appointed to the post because of legal constraints. To get formal recognition the Leader of Opposition must belong to a party having at least 10 percent of the total strength in the House, which is 55 members. The Congress is short by 10 members. The Leader of Opposition must belong to a single party with that strength, not to a pre-poll alliance.
The Congress cites legal provisions to justify its demand. The Leader of the Opposition serves in the selection panels for the Chief Vigilance Commissioner and Central Bureau of Investigation. But the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003 provides for the leader of the single largest group in opposition to be member of the selection committee. Therefore the Congress legal argument does not wash.
Why is the Congress so keen about getting the Leader of Opposition post? What will a Congress Leader of Opposition do to make up for the mute response of the Congress party regarding serious issues of policy?
The Congress Leader of Opposition will undoubtedly be either Mrs. Sonia Gandhi or Mr. Rahul Gandhi, neither distinguished by great perception or loquacity. The answer is quite simple. The post received statutory recognition through an Act of Parliament in 1977 by which Leader of Opposition gets the status of cabinet rank and the perks of office. The Congress quest for the post has nothing to do with debates in parliament but everything to do with the status and perks of its leader.
There have been long gaps in the history of this parliament when there was no recognized Leader of Opposition. The first time a recognized Leader of Opposition emerged was in 1969 when thanks to Indira Gandhi’s split of the Congress party the Congress (O) had the requisite numbers to make Ram Subhag Singh Leader of Opposition.
There is no connection between an effective opposition and the existence of this office. Arguably the most powerful opposition on issues occurred during Nehru’s time when no opposition party had requisite numbers. There was a galaxy of leaders including Kripalani, HV Kamath, Nath Pai, Lohia, Vajpayee and others who were capable of cornering an all powerful Nehru and make him squirm.
Recall Lohia’s famous “four-anna-a-day” controversy. Lohia contrasted the huge amount spent on the PM’s upkeep compared to what 70 percent of India lived on – less than four annas a day! Nehru disputed the figure and quoted Planning Commission statistics. The entire opposition rallied around Lohia who proved the Planning Commission wrong. Lohia’s party had few MPs. Lohia was not Leader of Opposition in parliament. He and many others at the time were opposition leaders of the nation. They did not indulge in personal slurs and jibes. They focused on policies. They did not chase status. They sought reform.