Opposition’s larger demography, Leader of the Opposition’s big responsibility

The Leader of the Opposition in the 18th Lok Sabha must take his cue from the verdict of the 2024 general election — to restore normalcy in Parliament and highlight the government’s failures

Updated - June 27, 2024 09:07 am IST

Published - June 27, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘Since the Opposition in the Indian Parliament is not monolithic and is composed of multiple parties with divergent ideologies and programmes, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is full of challenges’

‘Since the Opposition in the Indian Parliament is not monolithic and is composed of multiple parties with divergent ideologies and programmes, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is full of challenges’ | Photo Credit: ANI

The 2024 general election is historic in as much as it resulted in the numerically largest Opposition in the Lok Sabha. It is perhaps the largest in the history of the House. With the Opposition securing over 234 seats, one also saw the debate on the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) come alive. In the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas, there was no LoP because under a direction of the Speaker issued in the 1950s, in order to get recognition as a party in the House, it should have a minimum of 10% members in that House (Direction 121).

Watch: How is the Speaker of Lok Sabha elected?

This direction was issued for the recognition and categorisation of parliamentary parties for the sake of providing them certain facilities in Parliament. But this direction does not deal with the recognition of the LoP. Later, Parliament enacted the Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, 1977, which for the first time, defined the term Leader of the Opposition as “the Leader in that House of the party in opposition to the Government having the greatest numerical strength and recognised as such by the Chairman of the Council of States or the Speaker of the House of the People, as the case may be”.

The definition shows that in order to recognise a person as LoP, there are two conditions that need to be fulfilled. First, the party should be numerically the biggest one in opposition to the government. Second, that party should be recognised by the Speaker as a party. As mentioned earlier, the Speaker can recognise a party as such only if it has 10% of the strength of the House. In other words, only a party which has 10% of the strength of the House can put forth its claim to the post of LoP. Under the direction cited, a party which has less than 10% members shall be categorised as a group which cannot claim the post of LoP. Thus, the Congress parliamentary party which had only 52 members, in 2019, in the Lok Sabha, two less than 54 which is the threshold, could not get this post.

However the enactment of the 10th Schedule has, in a way, rendered the categorisation of parties into parties and groups by the Speaker/Chairman (Lok Sabha/Rajya Sabha) irrelevant. Under this schedule, all political parties, irrespective of the number of Members that they have in the Houses, are “parties”. The term ‘group’ is not recognised by the Schedule. So, in tune with the Schedule, necessary changes in the Leaders of Opposition Act should have been made to enable the Speaker to recognise the leader of the largest Opposition party in the House, irrespective of whether it has 10% Members or not. Anyway, the leader of the Congress party is now the Leader of the Opposition in the 18th Lok Sabha.

In the Westminster system

The post of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha has great political significance. In the British parliamentary tradition, he is called the Prime Minister-in-waiting as he is the one who the king turns to when the incumbent government falls, to form an alternative government. He, therefore, forms a shadow cabinet of his colleagues in his party. It is an interesting feature of the Westminster system of government.

The shadow cabinet is formed under the leadership of the leader of opposition who will be called the shadow prime minister. According to this tradition, the shadow cabinet scrutinises the policies and actions of the government and offers alternative policy. It is called the shadow cabinet because its members mirror the positions of the individual member of the real cabinet. As members of the shadow cabinet, these Opposition members familiarise themselves fully with the operations of the government. They can seek all relevant information about the entire gamut of the activities of the government. Erskine May, an international authority on parliamentary system says, “The Leader of the Opposition and some of the Leader’s principal colleagues in both Houses form a group, known as ‘the Shadow Cabinet’, each member of which is given a particular range of activities on which it is their task to direct criticism of the Government’s policy and administration and to outline alternative policies....”

Although we have adopted the Westminster system, the practice of forming a shadow cabinet does not exist in Parliament or State legislatures. The post of the Leader of the Opposition in the Indian Parliament has been a statutory position since 1977. However, this statute does not define the functions of the Leader of the Opposition. Traditionally, he will be a very senior member of the principal Opposition in the House who commands great respect and has wider acceptability among the parties in the Opposition.

With change in 2024, the challenges

Since the Opposition in the Indian Parliament is not monolithic and is composed of multiple parties with divergent ideologies and programmes, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is full of challenges. The biggest problem he faces is that he has no power. It is easy for a party in power to attract other parties and keep the alliance together through a power-sharing arrangement. The opposition to the policies and programmes of the government is a major factor which keeps them together. In certain situations, the hope of bringing down the government acts as a unifying factor. In fact, the traditional role of the Opposition is to “oppose the government, to criticize it and to seek to replace it”.

In the past 10 years, the Lok Sabha has seen a rather lean Opposition which could not mount any serious challenge to the government. A large majority enjoyed by the ruling party and its intimidatory postures overawed the Opposition which often felt helpless. But the 2024 general election has brought about a sea change in the political atmosphere and the demography of the House. It is perhaps for the first time that the Lok Sabha has such a huge number in the Opposition. With over 234 Members in the Opposition benches, the House is almost evenly divided. This has, no doubt, boosted the morale of the Opposition which, to a great extent, can influence the running of the House. It would be reflected in the admission of questions, the content of the answers, debate on Bills, general debates such as the debate on the motion of thanks, urgent matters of public interest, admission of adjournment motions, and reference of Bills to the committees for detailed scrutiny, to name a few.

The Leader of the Opposition should be able to capture this new mood of the Opposition and present his views in the House in the most effective way. The LoP of the 18th Lok Sabha has the onerous task of serving the unity of the Opposition at all costs. As the prime minister in waiting, he has the responsibility to inform the nation about the failures of the government based on truth and with a great sense of responsibility. In the House he has primacy in debates and other interventions. It is the well-accepted parliamentary tradition that the Speaker permits the Leader of the Opposition to make interventions on any matter without any notice. He can demand the presence of the Prime Minister in the House when it debates serious issues. According to the British tradition, the Prime Minister directly informs the Leader of the Opposition about major policy initiatives. Thus, the channel of communication between the Prime minister and the Leader of Opposition is always kept open.

The past has lessons

In India too, this healthy tradition can be followed, which will certainly strengthen democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru had created certain traditions such as being present in the House during Question Hour on most of the dates and supplementing the replies given by Ministers whenever he felt that such replies were inadequate. Nehru is said to have pleaded with the Speaker to grant more time to the leaders of the Opposition and he would invariably be present in the House to listen to them. He used to say that it is only from the Opposition members that he would come to know about the real situation in the country, and not from his own party members who would only praise him and not speak the truth. The Indian Parliament evolved in its early stages in such an environment. There is much in the past which can be learned and emulated by the new generation of parliamentarians. Repudiation of the past will take us nowhere. Intolerance towards dissent was never a part of that tradition. The people of India have given the political class a great opportunity to restore normalcy in Parliament. The main function of the Leader of the Opposition is to constantly remind the ruling Benches of the need to normalise Parliament.

P.D.T. Achary is former Secretary General, Lok Sabha

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