On 18 June, the Congress appointed Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a five-time member of parliament from West Bengal, as leader of the party in the lower house of parliament. The next day, Om Birla, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the position of speaker of the 17th Lok Sabha, was elected almost unanimously. But despite Chowdhury’s appointment, the Congress decided not to stake claim for the post of Leader of Opposition in Parliament, or LOP, in the Lok Sabha. If the actions of Sumitra Mahajan, the previous speaker, are any indication, Chowdhury is unlikely to receive the official recognition.
During the entire term of the 16th Lok Sabha, Mahajan refused to recognise an LOP, arguing that the Congress, which was the single largest party in the opposition, did not have the requisite numbers to nominate any candidate for the post. The Congress had won 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and Mahajan argued that a party must secure at least 10 percent of the total number of seats—or 55 seats—for a member to be appointed the LOP. Mahajan refused to recognise the Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge as the LOP on this ground, and it is expected that Birla will use the same logic to deny the position to Chowdhury, given that the Congress has once again fallen short of the number, winning only 52 seats in this year’s general elections.
Mahajan’s actions, however, had no legal sanctity. While the 10-percent rule did govern parliamentary procedure for over two decades post Independence, the power of the speaker to recognise an LOP and the rules to determine that decision underwent an important change in 1977. That year, a law enacted by parliament empowered the speaker to recognise a leader of the largest party in opposition as the LOP. But both the previous and the current speaker appear to have ignored this 42-year-old law, and India’s democratic politics is suffering for it.
The 10-percent rule originated following the formation of the first Lok Sabha in 1952. The rules governing the Lok Sabha procedure empower the speaker of the house to issue “Directions” to conduct business in the lower house. In 1956, GV Mavalankar, who was the speaker at the time, first introduced the 10-percent rule to Indian parliamentary politics through Directions 120–123. The directions concern the recognition of an LOP, and basically list the requirements for an association of members to be recognised as a parliamentary “party.” Among others, these included a condition that the association should have the minimum strength necessary to constitute quorum in the Lok Sabha—or one-tenth of the total number of seats, as prescribed by the Constitution.
Mavalankar’s contribution must be considered in the context of his beliefs. He was a vocal proponent of a two-party democracy, and had once remarked that “democracy will never grow on proper lines unless there are the fewest number of parties, possibly not more than two major parties.” While the 10-percent direction is feasible in a two-party system, its application in a country with as varied a political spectrum as India and with multiple national and regional parties thriving together is questionable.