SDG16 : Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions in India
Author : Shubhada Sonwalker
India is undeniably the world's largest democracy. Apart from being the largest, it is also one of the most diverse and participative. It has been able to move past its complex communal past; and has qualified as one of the most unique and stable (albeit flawed) democracies in the sub-continent. One way it has upheld the constitution is by accommodating opposing ideologies in the parliament. The existence of a leader of opposition has always signified a variety of opinions and options.
To some, the 2019 general election was a break from this glorious past. The Modi led BJP not only won by a thumping majority which in itself is unprecedented. But, more importantly it reduced Congresses’ seats in the Lok- Sabha below 10%. This means that for the first time there will be no leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha.
West Bengal MP Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary was named as Leader of Opposition as the second largest party. But, he was not recognized as such by the speaker. He then filed a petition to the Delhi High Court which was also rejected. This incident has set a very bad precedent. It has also led many to question the Role of Opposition in a democracy.
Role of Opposition in a Democracy
The term ‘official opposition’ is used in India to denote the political party which has secured the second largest number of seats either in House of Sates/ Rajya Sabha or House of People/Lok Sabha.
The party has its leader, called as Leader of Opposition which has been defined in Section 2 of SAOLP ACT 1977 and has its organization and own committees. Apart from being the second majority, the party should have at least 10 percent of the total seats.ie. the quorum of the house. The rule was first stated by the G.V. Mavlankar, the first speaker of Lok Sabha, which was later adopted in the Direction 120 & 121(1)(c) by the Speaker.
The major role of the opposition is to make the ruling party accountable to the public. The opposition is similarly responsible for protecting the best interests of the people of the world. A constant scrutiny by the opposition ensures that the Ruling Party does not lose sight of its responsibilities. The Opposition parties act as checks within the legislature to any arbitrary acts of the ruling party. The job of the Opposition is not to always criticise the government, rather, it provides constructive criticisms and suggestions as and when required. By expressing minority opinions it safeguards the rights and duties of all citizens. Therefore, as said by Sir Ivor Jennings, British Constitution, that if the main function of the Parliament is to criticize the Government, the opposition is its most important part where it is to speak and criticise the ruling government by profession. The government owning the majority can govern but it must do so under the constant fire of the criticism by the opposition.
Moreover, the opposition of one day will be the government but the condition is that it shall maintain its identity and appear as an alternative programme, which will be regarded by the electorate as a pledge. "Opposition parties play a necessary role in a democracy by providing ground for politicians who may at any moment be called upon the functions of Government." Thus, the opposition provides an alternative government also.
Significance of the Leader of Opposition Post
It is true that the current regime does not face any national adversary of its own scale. Thus, not providing a LOP seat may be constitutionally valid. But, is against the custom of the parliament, something, which we ingrained from our ancestors. The leader of Opposition is a statutory post, also known as Shadow Prime Minister in Westminster Parliament. As, it provides an alternative government in case the Incumbent Government fails. The Speaker in the 16th Lok- Sabha also did not recognise the LOP by Congress, even though it was the largest party. The same was done again. In my opinion, The leader of the opposition in the houses of Indian parliament is a statutory post. This post is defined in the Salaries and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, 1977 as simply the leader of the numerically biggest party in opposition to the government and recognised as such by the speaker/chairman.
The procedure for recognising the leader of the opposition is well laid down. The point to note here is that the statute gives the numerically largest party in the opposition the right to have a leader recognised as leader of the opposition by the speaker. It is a matter of procedure and not of discretion. Way back in the 1950's the Speaker used the practice of distinguishing between parties and groups for allotting seats in the parliament.
He set the criteria of 10% of the quorum as a criteria for parties. This was in no way concerned with the appointment of the LOP. The 1977 Act did not set the 10 percent condition. Mavlankar rule was incorporated in Direction 121(1) in Parliament (Facilities) Act, 1998 which remains unchanged. But, The directives of the speaker cannot override the conditions for a statutory post.
In any case, any party, regardless of the number of representatives it has in the house, is considered a 'party' after the enactment of the 10th Schedule of the constitution that implemented anti-defection provisions. In the house, even a one -member party is called a party. Therefore the categorization of parliamentary parties by the speaker as 'parties and groups' became meaningless and this procedure therefore became obsolete.
Therefore it is devoid of any merit to conclude that the Congress should not assert the role of opposition leader because it does not have at least 10 percent of the membership of the house. This view is a representation of ignorance of the law. The court in the present case refused to entertain the petition citing Art. 122 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits courts to interfere in Procedural laws. But, violation of statutory or constitutional provisions is not an irregularity of procedure. Thus, the verdict seems contrary to the spirit of law.
It is also important to note that In the Delhi assembly, the only opposition party, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party, got the post of leader of the opposition although it had only three members in an assembly of 70 members. Speaker Ram Niwas Goyal acted under the Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Salaries and Allowances) Act, 2001, which has a provision identical to the central law.
Need for an Opposition
After not giving recognition to the Leader of Opposition, the BJP led central government has gained enormous power. It has become very easy for NDA to pass any bills without any deliberations or cross-questioning. The BJP has stealthily passed many controversial bills like GST Reforms and removed the PM-Cares fund from the RTI Ambit.It has also passed the Three Draconian Farm Bills as Ordinances. Making it impossible to register dissent. This over-centralisation and arbitrary tweaking of laws can only be prevented when the opposition is strengthened.
Conclusions and Recommendations
As Stated Above, Since the 2014 election, there has been no party which has emerged as an alternative. The lack of an opposition has given the central government a free hand. This government is passing laws which are arbitrary and contrary to our principles as a nation. Like the Citizenship Amendment Act, the APMC Bill or the incumbent Love-Jihad Bill. India is a democracy, but internal politics is making us a weaker democracy. A strong resistance is required to hold the government in place.
There are two things which can drastically improve the situation:
1. COURTS NEED TO INTERFERE WHEN NEEDED-The Courts need to step up and correctly interpret the provisions regarding the appointment of Leader of Opposition in the democracy. The provisions are being needlessly complicated and confused to mislead the public. It is the duty of the courts to safeguard the constitutional spirit, as it has done previously under other seemingly authoritarian regimes like Indira Gandhi’s.
2. REGIONAL PARTIES CAN FORM STRONG OPPOSITION AT THE STATE LEVEL- Although, we have a strong centre , India is still a federation. Most voters since 2016 have been discerning enough to choose regional parties at the state level. States like Maharashtra, Punjab, Delhi, Odisha and most southern states have shown that people value governance and stability. These states need to show resistance to oppressive laws whenever possible.
3. POLITICAL PARTIES ALSO NEED TO RETHINK THEIR IDEOLOGIES- No government is forever, NDA-Allies like Shiromani Akali Dal (S.A.D) in Punjab have prioritized people’s concern over the government. As, this can only keep regional parties relevant and ensure their survival and hopefully, the Survival of Democracy.
1) Imran Ali vs Union Of India & Anr on 14 January, 2015 W.P.(C) 5745/2014
2) Sec. 2, the Salary and Allowances of the Leader of Opposition in Parliament Act 1977
4) Direction 120 & 121(1)(c), Direction by the Speaker, Lok Sabha, 9th Edition, 2019
5) The British Constitution: Jennings, page 81
6) The Indian Parliament, A.B.Lai, p.g.207, Vol. 12, No. 4 (October-December 1956),
7) The Role of the Opposition in the House of the People, C.P.Bhambri, The Indian Journal of Political Science , July-December, 1957, Vol. 18, No. 3/4 (July-December, 1957), pp. 244-259
8) P.D.T Acharya, Leader of Opposition is a Statutory Position, the '10% Rule' is Not Founded in Law, Jun. 1 2019, The Print. https://thewire.in/government/leader-of-opposition-parliament-lok-sabha
9) Art. 122 of the Constitution of India
10) Asian News International July 08, 2019 16:06:30 IST
11) Right to Information Act 2005
12) Justice (Retd.) B Sudarshan Reddy, Death Of Democratic Institutions: The Inevitable Logic of Neo-Liberal Political Economy & Abandonment of Directive Principles of State Policy
13) Gargi Parsai, With the Farm Bills, the Government Has Abandoned Farmers to Market Forces, https://thewire.in/agriculture/farm-bills-mandis-agents-middlemen, Sept. 22, 2020 8:02 PM