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Govt faces leader of Opposition googly

New Delhi, Aug. 22: The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to explain how it will ensure an Opposition role in selecting the Lokpal as the country does not have a leader of Opposition now.

The court did not specifically go into how the leader of Opposition should be picked — a matter of legislative dispute after the Lok Sabha Speaker denied the Congress the post citing legal advice that the claimant party should have at least 10 per cent of the seats.

The Congress is the single largest Opposition party but its strength of 44 MPs is below the disputed 10 per cent cut-off.

The apex court was referring to a grey area arising from the absence of the post of the leader of Opposition in this House.

The Lokpal act says the chairperson and members shall be appointed by the President after obtaining the recommendations of a selection committee.

Chaired by the Prime Minister, the selection committee will have as members the Lok Sabha Speaker; leader of Opposition in the House; Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice; and an eminent jurist.

However, the subsequent clause says “no appointment of a chairperson or a member shall be invalid merely by reason of any vacancy in the selection committee”. The Narendra Modi government today cited this clause to say the selection process can go ahead without the leader of Opposition but the court wanted more deliberation.

The court said: “Parliament never visualised such a situation (when there is no leader of Opposition). This aspect has to be made clear (in the Lokpal act) that whether the leader of the single largest party is considered in such a situation or not.”

The government did not make a commitment straightaway.

Dealing with a PIL, the apex court told attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi that the government must fast-track the process of appointing the Lokpal and the members.

Although the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, was passed by Parliament and came into force on January 16, 2014, no appointment has been made so far to the posts.

Brushing aside Rohatgi’s plea for a four-week adjournment, a three-judge bench of Chief Justice R.M. Lodha and Justices Kurien Joseph and R.F. Nariman allowed a little over a fortnight and posted the matter on September 9. The Centre will have to inform the court of its stand by then.

The bench refused to buy the government’s contention that “the process is on and it will take some time”.

Chief Justice Lodha said: “A law like this cannot be rendered meaningless. We need to fast-track the process. Such an important legislation cannot be frustrated.

“How does the concept work when there is no leader of Opposition? You have to tell us first what are the options left with you when we are confronted with a situation like this. There are fundamental problems in these aspects. The rules must have a wider meaning so as to ensure that it (the selection committee) becomes effective. Otherwise, this may lead to having no objective view.”

The bench was suggesting that the government needs to clarify how it intends to fill the selection panel post with an Opposition voice in the absence of the leader of Opposition.

“This is a very important statutory process involving probity in public life,” the court added.

When the court sought clarity whether the leader of the single largest party can be appointed to the Lok Pal selection committee, Rohatgi said no commitment could be given at the moment by the government.

He referred to the rules framed by India’s first Speaker that a party must obtain a minimum 10 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha to gain the leader of Opposition status. (The Congress has been citing a 1977 law on the salary and allowances of the leaders of Opposition in Parliament, which does not mention the 10 per cent cut-off but refers to the leader of “the party in opposition to the government having the greatest numerical strength and recognised as such” by the Speaker.)

The court said: “The question is this committee must be an effective committee…. Surely, leader of Opposition is a very important component… as a matter of fact very, very important for a very objective consideration (for appointing the Lokpal and members).

Rohatgi said the act mentions that even if there was one vacancy in the committee, the process could still go ahead.

But the bench said: “It calls for interpretation. Ultimately, a vacuum remains. Legislative intervention is necessary. A proper interpretation is required.”

Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO Common Cause that filed the PIL, objected to the attorney-general’s submission, saying the government could not rely on a ruling in the 1950s to interpret a 2013 law.

Agreeing with Bhushan, the bench said: “That time you did not think of this situation. Leader of Opposition — does it not convey the voice of the House, representing a view different from the government?”

The attorney-general persisted with the plea that the government be given four weeks to respond.

But the court said: “It will go on getting delayed. How long is the act going to be cold-storaged in the political dispensation? Such an important issue can’t be delayed.”

Rohatgi said the whole act and rules were under scrutiny.

But the court said: “We will give you two weeks’ time. We will hear you. Prolonging the matter will not help.”