The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance were ranged against each other both inside and outside the Parliament on the opening day of the budget session on Monday.
While the two sides locked horns in the Lok Sabha over the rule under which a discussion on price rise should take place, the corridors of Parliament were abuzz with a brewing confrontation between the Congress and the BJP over the former’s demand for the post of Leader of Opposition in the Lower House.
The Lok Sabha could not transact any business because the Congress wanted to move an adjournment motion to discuss price rise as this rule permits voting after the debate. The ruling alliance did not want to begin its first session with a vote. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Majahan rejected the Congress motion, resulting in periodic disturbances which eventually ended in an early adjournment.
Similarly, the Congress and the BJP were spoiling for a fight on the issue of the LoP in the Lok Sabha.
This was evident when Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoke up on the issue for the first time on Monday, stating emphatically that it should be given the post as it is the single largest party in the opposition.
At the same time, the party is preparing to submit a formal representation to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan to stake claim for this post for its parliamentary party leader Mallikarjuna Kharge.
The four-page representation, drafted by Congress deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, will be signed by MPs belonging to the Congress and its allies, including the Nationalist Congress Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
The representation is expected to be submitted shortly, Sharma said, adding that the Congress will wait for a week for the Speaker’s decision after which it will explore legal options to press its case. The representation has contended that not only is the Congress the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the party and its pre-poll allies are also the largest opposition bloc.
Even as the Congress indicated it is ready to battle it out, the BJP appeared to be equally unrelenting on this issue, stating that rules do not permit the main opposition party to claim this post.
While citing past precedents when previous Congress government had denied the LoP post to the opposition, the BJP is quoting Direction 121 (1) of the “Directions by the Speaker, Lok Sabha” , as formulated by the first Lok Sabha Speaker G V Mavalankar in 1953.
According to this direction, a party must have at least 10 per cent of the strength of the House to be designated as a parliamentary group. “Their number should not be less than the quorum fixed to constitute a sitting of the House, which is one-tenth of the total membership,” it states.
This means the Congress should have 55 MPs to be recognised as a parliamentary group and its leader to get the LOP status. The Congress, however, has only 44 MPs, its lowest tally so far.
The BJP is not buying the Congress argument that the United Progressive Alliance is the largest pre-poll alliance in the Lok Sabha. “Have the UPA allies elected a common leader.…in this instance, all the parties have their own leaders. Moreover, rules also state that pre-poll allies must have a common ideology and should have contested elections together,” a senior BJP minister told Rediff.com.
In any case, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said the Speaker can only take a view on the matter after it receives a formal letter from the Congress. “So far, the only letter Congress has sent us is to inform us about to Mallikarjuna Kharge appointment as its parliamentary party leader,” he underlined.
While the BJP is citing one set of rules to buttress its case to deny the LoP status to the Congress, the latter is quoting another rule to press its case.
Citing the 1977 Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act, the Congress said this clearly defines the leader of Opposition as “a member of the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) or the House of the People (Lok Sabha), as the case may be, who is, for the time being, 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”.
Anand Sharma insisted that there is no law which defines the LoP status in terms of the 10 per cent strength of the main opposition party. Stating that the rules quoted by the BJP were superseded by the 1977 Act, the Congress said it is on strong legal footing in this instance as it will argue that the law is not being followed.
“We are not going to challenge the Speaker’s direction but will highlight that the 1977 Act is not being implemented,” said a senior Congress leader. However, a senior BJP minister pointed out that the Congress had also been guilty on this front as it had not given this post to any party when it was in power in the eighties.
The Congress has taken a conscious decision to pursue this issue vigorously as it believes this is an opportunity to paint the Narendra Modi government as being “dictatorial.”
Not only is the LoP entitled to a Cabinet-rank status, the leader of House in the Lok Sabha is also mandated to be a member of the panels set up for the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner, the Lokpal, the Chief Information Commissioner, Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and Director of CBI and the National Human Rights Commission head.
The Congress has stated that the spirit of democratic functioning required the inclusion of LoP on these panels. The BJP, on the other hand, argued that the rules in this case were flexible and provided for a vacancy on the committees or the inclusion of the leader of the main opposition party in either House.
Clearly, the BJP and the Congress are ready to slug it out on this issue. Former Parliamentary Affairs minister Kamal Nath pointed out that the role of the leader of opposition has changed over the years. “Politics is very different. Parliament is very different today,” he maintained.
Image: Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi