Rahul: PTI
The Congress leader will also need to be mindful that his role as LoP goes much beyond launching rhetorical critiques of the government and sitting in selection committees. Photo: PTI

As LoP, Rahul must learn to accept opinions, master tricks of the trade

Being regular to Parliament, educating himself on rules of Lok Sabha and consulting with allies before key decisions are skills that Rahul must learn as LoP

Rahul Gandhi will be the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Congress party announced late on Tuesday (June 24) night. Congress general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal told reporters that Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, had written to Lok Sabha’s Speaker Pro-Tem, Bhartruhari Mahtab, informing him about the appointment.

The decision comes over a fortnight after the Congress Working Committee (CWC) unanimously passed a resolution urging Rahul, now the MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli constituency, to accept the position that has evaded the Congress for the past decade. In the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 and 2019, the Congress had failed to win the number of seats – 10 per cent of the Lok Sabha’s total strength of 543 MPs – required by a party to nominate a Leader of Opposition (LoP).

Constitutional debut

Rahul’s acceptance of the post would see him occupying a constitutional and administrative post, with a cabinet rank, for the first time in his two-decade long career in politics that began with his successful electoral debut as the MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi seat in 2004. Over the past two decades, the Nehru-Gandhi scion had stridently rejected offers of holding any such post, including then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s public call to him to join the UPA government as a minister between 2004 and 2014.

Now in his fifth term as a Lok Sabha MP, Rahul has emerged as one of the most trenchant and acerbic critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the BJP-RSS combine. His decision to accept the post of LoP comes at a crucial political juncture not just for his own party but also that for the BJP considering the results of the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls.

The Lok Sabha results have returned the BJP to power with a substantially reduced mandate; bringing the saffron outfit below the simple majority mark in Parliament’s Lower House for the first time since Modi’s ascension to the prime minister’s chair in 2014. The polls also saw a partial electoral revival of the Congress, which was reduced to its lowest ever tally of 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and barely climbed up to 52 seats in 2019, but bounced back with 99 seats in the recent polls.

Return of the Opposition

With the NDA down to 293 seats and the Congress-led INDIA bloc rallying up to the 237-seat mark, the poll results have also substantially bridged the decade-long wide gap between the numerical strength of the Treasury and the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

A major cause for the Congress and the wider Opposition’s electoral revival was the electorate’s disenchantment with a seemingly invincible Modi-led BJP due to issues such as spiralling unemployment, uncontrolled retail inflation and the fear that another brute majority for the saffron party could result in greater assaults on the Constitution, in general, and the reservation provided to Dalits, tribals and OBCs, in particular.

Each of these issues had been the fulcrum of Rahul’s campaign against the BJP not just during the bitter poll campaign but for a long time. The Congress leader had also made these the focal points of his pan-India Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra.

If the first two days of the 18th Lok Sabha’s ongoing inaugural session are any indication, these issues will continue to constitute a bulk of the Opposition’s ammunition against the Modi regime. INDIA bloc leaders, more particularly those from the Congress, believe that Rahul, despite his innate inability for restrained criticism, would be best placed to lead the Opposition’s charge against the Modi government in the Lok Sabha.

Why Rahul’s perfect for LoP post

“Rahul Gandhi has been the bravest voice in the entire Opposition against Modi and the BJP. He is unafraid to call out the government’s excesses and failures. On many issues... government’s handling of the migrant crisis during the COVID pandemic, its failure in controlling unemployment, the violence in Manipur or even on the issue of NEET, Rahul’s warnings proved to be prophetic but because the Modi government refused to heed his or any Opposition leader’s advice, the public suffered. With Rahul as LoP and the increased bench strength of the Opposition, concerns of the common people of India will be heard in Lok Sabha and the Modi government will not be able to bulldoze Parliament with anti-people laws,” Pawan Khera, media wing chief of the Congress, told The Federal.

By accepting the LoP’s post, Rahul has also secured for himself a seat at the high table of various committees that are tasked with selection of chiefs of crucial institutions, including those of central investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). The Opposition has repeatedly accused these agencies of functioning as handmaidens of the government. Rahul will also be on the panel that selects the Lokpal and the NHRC chief.

The balance of power in all such committees is heavily tilted in favour of the government as the only Opposition representative on them is the Lok Sabha’s LoP (or in some cases also the Rajya Sabha LoP, currently Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge). However, Rahul’s presence in them – more importantly, his penchant for unfiltered criticism of the Modi regime – could bring in some rigour in the selection process or at least ensure that if and when the government bulldozes a seemingly dubious appointment, the Opposition’s dissent is both strongly recorded and disseminated.

Truant track record

Rahul’s ability to test the BJP’s nerves on political issues and to launch scathing diatribes against the regime would hold the Opposition in good stead, particularly at a time when the stability of Modi’s prime ministerial chair is dependent on eccentric allies like Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. However, the Congress leader will also need to be mindful that his role as LoP goes much beyond launching rhetorical critiques of the government and sitting in selection committees.

As an MP for the past 20 years, Rahul’s track record in Lok Sabha has been rather unimpressive. Unlike his mother, Sonia, who made it a point to regularly attend House proceedings until her poor health prevented her from doing so, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has been an infrequent visitor to the Lok Sabha.

His attendance of 51 per cent during the entirety of the 17th Lok Sabha’s tenure was much lower than the national average of 79 per cent.

Data collated by PRS Legislative Research shows that between 2014 and 2019 while MPs on an average participated in over 46 per cent of the total debates in Lok Sabha, Rahul participated in just eight. Similarly, he showed very little inclination in posing questions to the government (during Question Hour); submitting just 99 questions against the national average of 210.

A senior INDIA bloc leader told The Federal that often when Rahul did attend a debate in Lok Sabha, he would invariably “come to the House moments before his turn to speak and leave shortly after; he rarely sat through any debate and showed little interest in hearing the response of the government or other members of the Opposition, including those from his own party”.

Social skills, political acumen

As the LoP, Rahul will need to be more regular to the Lok Sabha if he truly wishes to put the government on the mat on the floor of the House with as much eagerness and force as he does outside Parliament and on social media site X. As LoP, Rahul would also need to educate himself better on the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the Lok Sabha; something he has often displayed a poor understanding of.

While he would, of course, have help from other MPs and his own secretarial staff in knowing nuances of the Lok Sabha’s rulebook, there is, arguably, a more important matter on which Rahul’s skills as a politician will be tested frequently while he discharges his role as LoP.

It is widely known that unlike Sonia or Kharge, Rahul lacks both, a personal rapport with senior leaders of key allies and the heft to command their fealty. Though as a consequence of his yatras and since the formation of the INDIA bloc, Rahul is more openly accepted as a political leader in his own right, he is still far from being one who can charm a Mamata Banerjee or a Sharad Pawar into unquestioningly backing his political decisions.

This aside, Rahul is known to be stubborn when it comes to socio-political matters he is personally invested in or on the personal choices he makes as a politician. Classic examples of such obstinacy were when Rahul gave up the post of Congress president in the aftermath of his party’s 2019 poll rout; a decision that singularly plunged the Congress into a deep organisational crisis, or when he made the Rafale Scam and the “Chowkidar Chor Hai jibe” at Modi the central theme of his 2019 poll campaign much against the advice of several party colleagues.

Consensus-building a must

A senior Congress leader who once worked closely with Rahul told The Federal, “Rahul has a very strong sense of what he thinks is right or wrong; this makes him very unyielding, it may make him an upright politician or an idealist but it is not a quality that makes for a good LoP... as an LoP, he will need to take all 230 plus MPs of the INDIA bloc along; if he tells them he will go ahead with something despite a lack of consensus because he thinks it’s the right thing to do, they will think there is no difference between the way Modi runs the BJP and how Rahul wants to treat the INDIA allies.”

A Trinamool Congress leader told The Federal that while relations between Mamata and Rahul have “improved substantially”, Rahul’s habit of “acting first and consulting later” could create friction within the INDIA bloc. This leader pointed out that the Congress’s decision to field its senior MP K Suresh against BJP’s Om Birla in the Lok Sabha Speaker’s election was “Rahul’s idea” and that “the way it was done is not a good sign for Opposition unity”.

The Trinamool had taken exception to the Congress’s decision of forcing a contest for the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post. Trinamool leaders Abhishek Banerjee and Sudip Bandopadhyay accused the Congress of “acting unilaterally” and said that their party had “not been consulted on the matter”.

Sources said it was a call by Kharge to Banerjee and other Trinamool leaders followed by a similar outreach from Rahul that eventually smoothened things out. “As LoP, he will have to take everyone’s opinion, evolve a consensus and then take a decision if it is to be projected as the view of the INDIA bloc, otherwise there will be problems,” the Trinamool leader quoted earlier said.

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