Days after Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan formally rejected the Congress’s claim to the position of Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Lok Sabha, the Supreme Court on Friday said it would “interpret” the legal aspects of the issue, as “the LoP’s voice represents a view different from that of the ruling party”.
A Supreme Court Bench, headed by Chief Justice R M Lodha, asked the government how it intended to appoint constitutional posts such as that of the Lok Pal, the anti-corruption ombudsman, in the absence of an LoP. “We can’t underestimate the role of the LoP,” Lodha said, adding, “LOP is a very important component (for the Lok Pal).” He said the matter would again be taken up on September 9.
Saying the Lok Pal was “an important post and cannot be kept in limbo for a long time”, the court declined the government’s request for four weeks to reply.
The court was hearing a petition filed by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Common Cause last year. The NGO, represented by its counsel Prashant Bhushan, had raised the issue of vacancies in the Lok Pal. The Lok Pal Act mandates the LoP has to be part of the panel for selecting the Lok Pal. The prime minister and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha are also members of the panel.
Meanwhile, the government has put on hold the appointment of a new chief of the Central Information Commission due to the absence of an LoP.
While hearing the case on Friday, Lodha said the role of the LoP was an important one, as he “plays an objective role in decision-making”. The court emphasised the fact that the LoP was relevant not only for the appointment of the Lok Pal, but also for other posts (such as chief vigilance commissioner and the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation). “The issue cannot be prolonged and the (Lok Pal) Act cannot be put in cold storage,” it said.
In his legal opinion to the Speaker, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, who represented the government in court, had maintained the Congress’s inadequate numbers in the Lok Sabha (44 members) didn’t merit the LoP’s post. The Speaker had cited this while refusing the Congress the LoP’s post.
Bhushan argued the LoP should be selected from the largest Opposition party. He said ‘Mavlankar’s 10 per cent rule’ should not be strictly adhered to, adding it had no legal force (in the 50s, former speaker G V Mavlankar had set a precedent whereby a party with less than 10 per cent of the total seats in the House couldn’t hold the LoP’s post).
Rohatgi said all the five members in the Lok Pal selection panel were equally important. “As matters stand today, there will be no LoP in the panel.” Later, however, he said, “The government will look into the questions raised by the court and make necessary changes in the rules, after a complete review. If anyone is not satisfied, they could challenge it in court.”
Earlier this month, the apex court had rejected a public interest litigation seeking grant of LoP status to the Congress, saying decisions taken by the Speaker weren’t amenable to judicial review.
Friday’s court proceedings came as a shot in the arm for the beleaguered Congress. Party leader and former Union minister Manish Tewari said, “The presence of an LoP is an essential part of a democracy. If the government chooses to ignore the issue, it will be an assault on democracy. The Supreme Court has taken a very important step by asking the government to reply on this.”
Speaking to reporters, senior Congress member Anand Sharma said, “The Supreme Court’s observation has actually vindicated what the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance have been saying throughout. The decision of the Speaker was in utter disregard to law and appears to be clearly influenced and coloured by the partisan agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.”
Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said, “As far as the appointment of the LoP is concerned, the government is nowhere in picture. It is in the domain of the Speaker, who has to take a call going by rules and precedents. The Speaker said she couldn’t name anybody as LoP, as rules say a tenth of the strength of the Lok Sabha… Also, the Speaker can go by precedent… The Congress has not set any precedent where there is a party with a strength less than a tenth. There was no LoP during the periods of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress is saying it is all pre-1977. When the Act came in 1977, and Rajiv Gandhi became PM during that time, the Telugu Desam Party had 31 members, but the Congress denied it the LoP’s post.”
On the court case, he said the government would hold consultations in the matter.
FIGHT FOR THE POST
- March 31
NGO Common Cause files a petition, challenging the selection procedure for the chairperson and members of the Lok Pal. Court issues notice to the (UPA) government
- July 9
The Congress formally stakes claim to the Leader of Opposition (LoP) post in the Lok Sabha. Congress leader of house Mallikarjun Kharge meets Speaker Sumitra Mahajan
- August 19
The Lok Sabha Speaker formally rejects Congress demand
- August 22
Hearing the Common cause PIL, Chief Justice R M Lodha says Supreme Court will interpret LoP post for the Lok Pal law.