The Congress did not lay claim to get the Leader of the Opposition Party (LoP) status in the Lok Sabha despite being the largest party in the Opposition benches because in the 2019 LS elections, the party could secure only 52 seats which was less than 10 percent total strength of the lower House. Under the rules formulated by GV Mavlankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha, a party must secure at least 10 percent of the total number of Lok Sabha seats to be accorded that status. It is pertinent to point out that in the 2014 LS elections also, the Congress got just 44 seats and despite making a lot of noises and even approaching the apex judiciary to get the LoP status, it failed to do so. The Supreme Court refused to interfere in the decision of the Speaker.
In fact, this is not a new trend in our polity that has got solidified after the surge of BJP. In the first one-and-a-half decades after Independence, the political hegemony of the Congress ensured that there was no claimant to the LoP. Later, whenever the party got sufficient numbers and performed well in the elections, as in 1980 and 1984, it did not let any Opposition party get the LoP status.
Going by past precedents, there were no loopholes in the Speaker’s 2014 verdict that went against the Congress. Yet, it led to frayed political tempers and the matter reached the Supreme Court, which asked the Centre to explain its stand on the issue.
The LoP enjoys a status equivalent to that of a Cabinet minister. Naturally, a lot of perks and privileges come with this post and the Congress does not want to be deprived of those. The party contends that as it was part of the pre-poll United Progressive Alliance (UPA), all the seats secured by the parties in the alliance should be taken to belong to a unified entity. The UPA had got 58 seats in total in 2014, three more than the magical figure of 55, and that was the basis of the Congress’ claim on the post of LoP. Talking about 2019 LS elections, the UPA performed slightly better procuring 91 seats but the Congress decided not to go for LoP post.
Circumstances have changed since 1990 and today, the LoP plays a key role in the selection process for a number of important bodies such as the Central Vigilance Commission, the Central Information Commission, the Lokpal, the National Human Rights Commission and the recently introduced Judicial Appointments Commission that didn’t succeed to see the light of the day. Doing away with the LoP would give the BJP an upper hand in making such powerful appointments and militate against the very essence of democracy by enabling it to ride roughshod over the Opposition and even popular opinion, especially when it got only 37 percent of the votes polled across the country.
There has to be a place for dissent in any thriving and meaningful democracy. The moment Opposition voices are stifled, the vibrancy of the democratic process is lost. The disappearance of the Opposition space might degenerate into some sort of unilateralism, which any functional democracy can ignore only at its peril. Moreover, when Mavlankar arrived at the magical figure of 10 percent seats to have LoP status in 1952, there were very few parties in our polity and Congress stood tall as a Colossus. But now, the number of parties has increased with the proliferation of regional and caste parties and the polity has become a lot more fragmented and divisive. Hence the 10 percent stipulation for getting LoP status appears impractical and needs to be done away with.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked of taking along everyone in the path of nation-building and development. Now, it is time for the Modi government to walk the talk, show large heartedness and accord the LoP status to the Congress. Democracy needs Opposition. Without it, it will lose its very soul.
The LoP debate opens up certain fault lines that underline our polity. These need to be debated dispassionately and with an open frame of mind. The Indian parliamentary system is modeled after the British Westminster form of government that recognizes a ‘shadow Cabinet’ headed by a ‘shadow PM’, who happens to be the LoP. For every minister in the British Cabinet, there is a corresponding shadow minister. This enables informed and pointed debates to take place in the House. The shadow Cabinet serves as an alternative if there is a change in government. That is why constitutional expert Sir Ivor Jennings described the LoP as the alternative PM.
As the LoP has the power to convene a session of the House, his party must have the minimum number of seats required to reach the quorum. In the Indian context, quorum means the presence of at least 10 percent of the members in the House and perhaps this explains the logic behind the 10-percent seat requirement to get LoP status.
There is another aspect to this debate. In the 2014 General Election, the BJP emerged as the biggest party with a tally of 282 seats. With a vote share of 31.1 percent, it secured a little more than 51 percent of the total seats in the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 Elections, the BJP got 37 percent votes but 302 seats which is about 56 percent of the seats. On the other hand, though the Congress got around 19.4 percent of the total votes polled in 2014, it could not win even 10 percent of the seats. The same trend has been witnessed in 2019 in case of Congress. Previous elections, too, have shown marked incongruence between vote shares and the number of seats won.
Even a minor fluctuation in a party’s vote share can have a significant impact on the number of seats won by it. Take the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which could not send a single MP to the Lok Sabha in 2014 despite having the third-highest vote share among all the parties, with just over four percent. The party had 21 seats in the previous Lok Sabha. RJD got 15 percent vote share in 2019 LS elections but this failed to translate into a single seat.
Such outcomes are inevitable in the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, which prioritizes stability over representation. In contrast, better representation is manifested in the alternative system of proportional representation. Indian democracy needs a mechanism in which the aspirations of all can be mapped while preserving the sacred principles of the FPTP system.
There is a compelling logic to it. Today, the population of the nation is around 120 crore (2011 Census) and the number of MPs is 543. In the first General Election held in 1951, 489 MPs were elected to represent a population of around 36 crore. Though the population has grown steadily over the years, the numerical composition of the House has remained more or less the same. Today, one MP represents an average of 22 lakh people. There is wide disparity across the states as far as MP-population ratio is concerned. While states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi have higher than the average ratio of 22 lakh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa have their corresponding ratios pegged at 17 lakh, 18 lakh and 7 lakh respectively. In Union Territories like Lakshadweep, the ratio is less than 1 lakh.
Delimitation of constituencies was last done in 2001 and has been frozen until 2026, when the population of the country is expected to stabilise. Then, the states performing better in family planning would suffer fewer disadvantages.
In a small country like Britain, whose population is around 70 million, the number of MPs elected to the House of Commons is 650. It is high time we reduced the MP-population ratio to a level that is commensurate with the aspirations of our democracy. The ideal would be one MP for every 10 lakh population of our country.
An additional 180 MPs (one-third of the present membership) can be brought in through proportional representation from all the parties that secure more than five percent of the vote share. Considering our social, linguistic and cultural diversity and the underlying fault lines in our polity, it would be sensible to give a voice to all the smaller regional parties. This would strengthen federalism and mitigate the political hegemony of the bigger parties.
To prevent political uncertainty and honour the FPTP principle, certain safeguards can be incorporated. These 180 additional members may participate in the debates in the House, but not vote on Bills. They should be included, however, in the seat tally of the various parties. This would reduce to a great extent the anomaly between the votes secured and seats won. Moreover, the fracas over issues like LoP would be minimised and even the losers would not feel cheated. At the same time, the FPTP system would continue to have the precedence as desired by the founding fathers of our Constitution.