Any Lok Sabha MP who neither sits with the Opposition nor is a sworn-in member of the Government is a Backbench MP of the Government party or its coalition.
Shrimati Sonia Gandhi is the most prominent of such Backbench MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha, just as she was of the 14th Lok Sabha, and has chosen to be in a most peculiar position from the point of view of parliamentary law. As the leader of the largest parliamentary party, she could have been not merely a member of the Government but its Prime Minister. She has in fact had a decisive role in determining the composition of the Manmohan Government as well as its policies. She in fact sits on the Frontbenches in the Lok Sabha along with the Manmohan Government. But she is not a member of the Government and is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP who is choosing to sit in the Frontbenches.
(Dr Manmohan Singh himself, not being a member of the Lok Sabha, may, formally speaking, sit or speak from among the Frontbenches of his own Government only by invitation of the Lok Sabha Speaker as a courtesy – such would have been the cardinal reason why Alec Douglas-Home resigned from being Lord Home and instead stood for a House of Commons seat when he was appointed British Prime Minister.)
Sonia Gandhi’s son, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is also a Backbench MP. From all accounts, including that of Dr Singh himself, he could have been a member of Dr Singh’s Government but has specifically chosen not to be. He has appeared to have had some much lesser role than Sonia Gandhi in determining the composition of the Government and its policies but he is not a member of it. He is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP, indeed the most prominent to actually sit in the Backbenches, as he had done in the 14th Lok Sabha, which, it is to be hoped, he does in the 15th Lok Sabha too.
Now Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and their 541 other fellow 15th Lok Sabha MPs were declared winners by May 16 2009 having won the Indian people’s vote.
(Incidentally, I predicted the outcome here two hours before polls closed on May 13 – how I did so is simply by having done the necessary work of determining that some 103 million people had voted for Congress in 2004 against some 86 million for the BJP; in my assessment Congress had done more than enough by way of political rhetoric and political reality to maintain if not extend that difference in 2009, i.e., the BJP had not done nearly enough to even begin to get enough of a net drift in its favour. I expect when the data are out it shall be seen that the margin of the raw vote between them has been much enlarged from 2004.)
As I have pointed out here over the last fortnight, there was no legal or logical reason why the whole 15th Lok Sabha could not have been sworn in latest by May 18 2009.
Instead, Dr Manmohan Singh on May 18 held a purported “Cabinet” meeting of the defunct 14th Lok Sabha – an institution that had been automatically dissolved when Elections had been first announced! The Government then went about forming itself over two weeks despite the 15th Lok Sabha, on whose confidence it depended for its political legitimacy, not having been allowed to meet. Everyone – the Congress Party’s Supreme Court advocates, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Election Commission, Rashtrapati Bhavan too – seems to have gotten it awfully wrong by placing the cart before the horse.
In our system it is Parliament that is sovereign, not the Executive Government. In fact the Executive is accountable to Parliament, specifically the Lok Sabha, and is supposed to be guided by it as well as hold its confidence at all times.
What has happened instead this time is that Government ministers have been busy taking oaths and entering their offices and making policy-decisons days before they have taken their oaths and their seats as Lok Sabha MPs! The Government has thus started off by diminishing Parliament’s sovereignty and this should not be allowed to happen again.
(Of course why it took place is because of the peculiarity of the victory relative to our experience in recent decades – nobody could remember parliamentary traditions from Nehru’s time in the 1950s. Even so, someone, e.g. the former Speaker, should have known and insisted upon explaining the relevant aspect of parliamentary law and hence avoided this breach.)
A central question now is whether a Government which has such a large majority, and which is led by someone in and has numerous ministers from the Rajya Sabha, is going to be adequately controlled and feel itself accountable to the Lok Sabha.
Neither of the Lok Sabha’s most prominent Backbenchers, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, have thus far distinguished themselves as Parliamentarians on the floor of the Lok Sabha. In the 14th Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, sitting in the Frontbenches, exercised the enormous control that she did over the Government not on the floor of the House itself but from outside it.
It would be best of all if she chose in the 15th Lok Sabha to actually physically sit in the Congress’s Backbenches because that would ensure best that the Government Party’s ministers in the Frontbenches will keep having to seek to be accountable to the Backbenches!
But this seems unlikely to happen in view of the fact she herself seems to have personally influenced the choice of a Speaker for the 15th Lok Sabha and it may be instead expected that she continues to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government without being a member of it.
That leaves Rahul Gandhi. If he too comes to be persuaded by the sycophants to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government, that will not be a healthy sign.
On the other hand, if he continues to sit on the Backbenches, he may be able to have a salubrious influence on the 15th Lok Sabha fulfilling its responsibility of seeking to seriously control and hold accountable the Executive Government, and not be bullied or intimidated by it. His paternal grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, after all, may have been India’s most eminent and effective Backbench MP yet.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
The Government of India’s 79 Ministers have taken to their offices like bees to honey yet the 15th Lok Sabha that the people of India elected a fortnight ago is still three days from being convened.
In other words, people have been taking oaths and entering offices as Ministers even before they have taken their oaths or their seats in the 15th Lok Sabha which accords the Government its political legitimacy by its confidence!
Let posterity recall that the 15th Lok Sabha was made to needlessly wait from May 16 2009 until June 1 2009 and despite this the Government formed itself and entered office during that time. It cannot be something that helps the psychology or morale of our elected representatives nor be something conducive to the smooth working of the House.
It is all a terrible constitutional muddle which I doubt the PM or his party or Government, or even the Opposition, will admit to or want to clear up on their own but shall probably have to await a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of India telling them what parliamentary law is in due course.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata