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RIGHT CHOICE

When rules offer a clear choice, it is unnecessary and often unwise to look for exceptions. Both rules and convention are quite categorical about the circumstances in which a party can claim the status of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The rules require that a party must have a minimum of 55 members in the lower House to be entitled to the status. With only 44 members, the Congress clearly is in no position to rightfully make the claim. In 1980 and 1984, no party got the status in that House. Sumitra Mahajan, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, has thus followed both rules and past precedents in rejecting the Congressís claim. Her decision is thus unexceptionable. Ms Mahajan did well not to succumb to the Congressís pressure on the issue. In fact, it is doubtful if she could have acted differently without leaving room for future complications. It is possible that her decision will prompt the Congress to harden its attitude to the government. Given its majority in the Rajya Sabha, the party could make it difficult for the government to push its agenda of legislative reforms in Parliament. Important bills such as the ones on insurance sector reforms and on goods and services tax could be the first casualty of a widening rift between the government and the Congress.

However, much will also depend on how Narendra Modiís government reaches out to the Opposition. It is one thing not to accept the Congressís demand for the status of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and quite another to respect the Opposition groupsí role in a parliamentary democracy. If its huge majority in the Lok Sabha tempts the government to ignore the Opposition, the outcome can only be ominous for both parliamentary democracy and governance. There are crucial appointments, such as those of the chairperson and members of the lok pal, the Central vigilance commissioner and of the Central information commissioner, in which the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha would have had a major role. The government can still involve the Congress, which remains the largest Opposition party, in such crucial appointments. Even if the rules do not give the Congress a formal status in the Lok Sabha, they should not stop it from playing its role as a responsible Opposition party. No matter what the numbers are, pluralism is at the heart of multi-party democracy.