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Within the family, an Opposition role model

Motilal Nehru

New Delhi, May 25: If Rahul Gandhi becomes leader of the Opposition in the new Lok Sabha, he will be taking up a role his great-great-grandfather had pioneered in India’s legislative history.

Motilal Nehru inaugurated the post after he and Chittaranjan Das broke ranks with the Congress in 1923 to float the Swaraj Party in the Central Legislative Assembly, the lower House of a national legislature whose members were either nominated or elected indirectly.

The Congress Parliamentary Party has chosen Sonia Gandhi as its leader and, according to Article 5(C) of the body’s constitution, she is empowered to nominate Rahul or any other party MP as the Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha.

In 1999, when Sonia was CPP chairperson, she had doubled as leader of the Opposition. Senior Congress leaders such as Digvijaya Singh and Veerappa Moily today favoured Rahul for the post.

But if the Speaker of the 16th lower House goes by old conventions and the practices adopted by the Chairs of the first, second and third Lok Sabhas, the status of principal Opposition could elude the Congress.

Before 1985, smaller parties in the Opposition were often recognised as a parliamentary group. Under the existing system, only individual political parties are recognised in the Lok Sabha.

If the Speaker goes by the earlier convention, a grouping of the AIADMK with either the Trinamul Congress or the Biju Janata Dal could deny the Congress the status of principal Opposition. At least, if the principles laid down by G.V. Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha, are followed.

Mavalankar had allowed smaller parties to come together as a group, provided their combined strength was not less than the quorum fixed to constitute a sitting of the House — that is, one-tenth of its total membership.

As numbers go, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul has 34 MPs in the 543-member House, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK has 37 and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD has 20. The Congress has 44 MPs, which is less than one-tenth of the House strength.

Constitutional experts like Subhash Kashyap feel that the salary perks and entitlements of the leader of the Opposition can only be given to the leader of a party that satisfies the quorum.

But R.N. Mittal, the head of the All India Congress Committee’s legal department, says the Salary and Allowances Act of 1977 makes no mention of the 10 per cent criterion.

Mittal says the Speaker will have to recognise the Congress as the largest Opposition party if the requirements of several panels that select members of high offices like the central vigilance commissioner, Lok Pal and the central information commissioner are to be fulfilled. The leader of the Opposition is a member of the panels that select the occupants of these offices. Sources said the new Speaker would have to take the call.

In the first Lok Sabha, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was recognised as a parliamentary group. In August 1954, however, the group lost recognition when its membership dropped to 29 following a split.

In the second Lok Sabha, members of the CPI, Praja Socialist Party, Socialist Party, Scheduled Caste Federation (later known as the Republican Group), Swatantra Party, Ganatantra Parishad, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha and the DMK were given the nomenclature of a group.

When the Congress split in November 1969, the breakaway Congress Party (Organisation) had 60 members in the House and satisfied all the conditions for recognition as an Opposition party in the Lok Sabha. Its leader, Ram Subhag Singh, became the leader of the Opposition.

In the subsequent general election, the ruling Congress won 348 seats in a House of 515. None of the Opposition parties secured the minimum strength needed for recognition and no group was formed to be recognised as a parliamentary group.

The concept of recognition as parliamentary parties or groups changed since the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution, which discouraged defections, came into force on March 3, 1985.

All members of the House belonging to a particular party are now deemed to belong to the “legislature party” of that party in the House, irrespective of the numerical strength of that “legislature party”. It means the concept of recognition as a parliamentary group has changed.