One of the reasons for the aggravation of current issues of national importance, and the elusive nature of practical solutions before problems assume alarming proportions, is the situation in Parliament today. This is well worth reflecting on, as the Budget is presented, and the Debate gets underway.
When COPE Chairman Sunil Handunnetti recently tried in Parliament to make reference to some aspects of his work in the Committee, several Members resisted this effort. Among them was Minister Rauf Hakeem who, surprisingly, made an appeal to Parliamentary convention. What is distressing, however, is that the fundamentals of the law and custom of Parliament have been flagrantly violated by the Government since the inception of the Yahapalanya regime.
I. The Roles of Government and Opposition
A pivotal feature of the structure of Parliament is the clear identification of the roles of Government and Opposition.
The functions of the Leader of the Opposition have great constitutional significance. In the United Kingdom, leadership of the Opposition was developed largely by custom and first received statutory recognition in the Ministers of the Crown Act of 1937. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act of 1975 accorded legislative recognition to the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords. In India, statutory recognition to the Leader of the Opposition was given in the Salary and Allowances of Leaders of the Opposition in Parliament Act of 1977.
Sir. Ivor Jennings, in his authoritative work, Cabinet Government, states: “The Opposition is at once the alternative to the Government, and a focus for the discontent of the people. Its function is almost as important as that of the Government.” Referring to British practice, he observes: “The rule is that, on the defeat and resignation of the Government, the Queen should first send for the Leader of the Opposition”. In his book, Parliament Today, Andrew Adonis writes: “The Opposition aims to replace the Government at the next general elections. In the interim, it conducts itself as a shadow government, complete with a shadow Prime Minister in the Leader of the Opposition”.
The institution of Parliament is founded on the premise that the Leader of the Opposition is seen by the public as one able, at any time the Government falters, to offer the country a stable alternative government. He is, by definition, the potential leader of an alternative government waiting in the wings to take over the reins when political fortunes change, as indeed they must over time. By no stretch of the imagination, however elastic, can Sampanthan be cast in this role. There is not even a semblance of credibility in his tenure of the Office of Leader of the Opposition in the eighth Parliament of Sri Lanka.
II. The Criterion of Credible Rotation
Not only in terms of basic constitutional principle, but also as a matter of empirical experience, the Office of the Leader of the Opposition has been consistently held in successive Parliaments in our country since Independence by a major political figure, realistically perceived as being capable of taking over the Government at any time.
In the seven Parliaments of Ceylon during the period 1947-1970, Dr. N.M. Perera was Leader of the Opposition in three Parliaments, while S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, C. P. de Silva, Dudley Senanayake and Sirimavo Bandaranaike filled this role in the other four.
After enactment of the present Constitution, the country has had eight Parliaments. Characteristic of these has been the holding of the post by a party leader who could, and indeed did, form an alternative Government in due course. Leadership of Government and Opposition rotated between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe during the period 1994-2005, and between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, thereafter. This was in keeping with the finest Parliamentary traditions established by British practice and exemplified, in vivid terms, by the exchange of power between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli over a sustained period in the Victorian era.
III. Numerical strength, a relevant factor
A jarring departure from this healthy practice is marked by the appointment of R. Sampanthan to this post of both symbolic and practical significance. It is a departure which represents an insufferable affront to logic as well as precedent.
In the current Parliament the Joint Opposition which counts 51 Parliamentarians among its membership, has informed the Speaker in writing that its unanimous choice for the position of Leader of the Opposition is Dinesh Gunawardena. Nevertheless, the post went instead to Sampanthan whose Party, the Tamil National Alliance, held a mere 16 seats in a Parliament of 225, and polled a meagre 4.62% of the national vote at the preceding election.
This is, by any standard, a grotesque aberration. In India, during the tenure of office of Pandit Jawaherlal Nehru as Prime Minister, paucity of numbers militated against anyone being appointed Leader of the Opposition. No appointment was considered preferable to an appointment entirely lacking in credibility.
"In the current Parliament the Joint Opposition which counts 51 Parliamentarians among its membership, has informed the Speaker in writing that its unanimous choice for the position of Leader of the Opposition is Dinesh Gunawardena. Nevertheless, the post went instead to Sampanthan whose Party, the Tamil National Alliance, held a mere 16 seats in a Parliament of 225, and polled a meagre 4.62%"
On August 19, 2014, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the Bharathiya Janatha Party’s Sumitra Mahajan, ruled that the Congress, the second largest Party in the House, was not eligible to appoint the Leader of the Opposition, since it had only 44 seats out of a total of 543. Her ruling was that 10% of the total strength of the House was needed to stake a maintainable claim, the minimum requirement being pegged at the threshold of 54 seats. Speaker Mahajan acted on the advice of the Attorney-General, who based his opinion on past practice and rules framed by G.V. Mavlankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. In 1956, Mavlankar postulated the “10% rule” which has since become entrenched in the law and custom of Parliament in India and is, in any event, clearly supportable from the standpoint of acceptance across the nation.
According to the Leaders and Chief Whips of Recognized Parties and Groups in Parliament (Facilities) Act of India, a Party recognized in the Lok Sabha for this purpose is one which has at least 54 seats. Furthermore, in keeping with Rule 121 of the Directions by the Speaker issued under Rule 389 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, one of the essential conditions for “recognition” by a Parliamentary Party in this context is that its strength must be at least equal to the quorum mandated for a sitting of the House, that is to say, a minimum of one-tenth of the strength of the House.
It is, then, undeniable that the appointment of Sampanthan, with his infinitesimal following in the Legislature, even less than the mandatory quorum stipulated for a sitting, would have been looked upon in India as a grave anomaly approximating to the caricature of a post vital for the functioning of representative democracy.
Role of JO in Parliament: Appearance
IV. The requirement of a critical posture
Assessed by reference to every applicable criterion, this appointment is plainly indefensible.
A distinguishing feature of the Leader of the Opposition is that he heads a Party which has the capability to offer trenchant criticism of the Government in the public interest. This is brought out in the apt comment by Jennings, in his book Parliament, that “If Parliament’s main function is to criticize, the Opposition is the most important part. Its members are, so to speak, critics by profession”. It is manifestly fanciful to suggest that this applies to R. Sampanthan or to the Tamil National Alliance.
Its official Spokesperson, Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran, declared at a public forum in Washington, where he was flanked by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States of America, that the pledge given by the Government of Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in October 2015, with regard to the appointment of “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators” in the Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, was the direct result of a tripartite agreement among the Governments of Sri Lanka and the United States and the TNA.
The latter Party, far from being able to maintain credibly a posture of detachment from the Government, is seen by the public as, at best, an adjunct to, but more pragmatically, an integral part of the Government in power. The TNA has never served as a focal point of criticism of the Government, nor was there at any time the reasonable expectation that it was equipped to do so. On the other hand, in respect of all current issues of national importance – the Central Bank Bond Scam, the VAT increase, the proposed ETCA and, more generally, a skewed economic and foreign policy, to select a few – it is the Joint Opposition led by Dinesh Gunawardena that has shown itself to have the resolve and competence to present to the public a critique of Government policy, and to secure for itself widespread community acknowledgement as the authentic voice of the Opposition.
V. Form and substance
The argument monotonously resorted to for the purpose of justifying the present state of affairs is that the Parties comprising the Joint Opposition contested the Parliamentary Elections of August 2015 under the common symbol and banner of the UPFA, and that its largest constituent element – the SLFP – is, officially, a component of the Government.
There never was a more specious argument. To lay bare its falsity, it is unnecessary to travel further than to examine the events which unfolded in India after Pandit Nehru’s death in 1964, when the Indian National Congress found itself in the throes of an internal crisis. This crisis saw the division of the Congress into two entities – the Indian National Congress (O) and the Indian National Congress (I). The former, which came to be known as the Old Congress, was led first by K. Kamraj and later by Morarji Desai.
"it is the Joint Opposition led by Dinesh Gunawardena that has shown itself to have the resolve and competence to present to the public a critique of Government policy, and to secure for itself widespread community acknowledgement as the authentic voice of the Opposition"
The Party symbol had far greater practical significance in India at that time than it does in Sri Lanka, because large numbers of voters were not literate and were therefore guided in their choice by the pictorial symbol of the Party. At the General Elections held in India in 1971, notwithstanding that the “Old Congress” retained the Party symbol of a pair of bullocks carrying a yoke, the INC (O) was able to muster only 10% of the vote and a paltry 16 seats in the Lok Sabha, in comparison with 44% of the vote and 352 seats gained by Indira’s Congress.
What this demonstrates beyond doubt is that formal labels and the contours of Party hierarchy pale into irrelevance when confronted with the torrent of disenchanted public opinion. Formal structure, indeed, sooner rather than later, yields necessarily to palpable reality. Thus it was that, in 1980, Indira’s National Congress, just three years after its spectacular electoral debacle, swept to power with a total of 377 out of 543 seats, reducing its principal opponent, the Janatha Party, to only 17 seats. At this point, the Election Commission of India recognized Indira’s Congress as “the real Congress” to which they conceded the nomenclature of the Indian National Congress (without any suffix) and restored the Congress symbol to it.
VI. The present anomaly
This serves to underline the wholly artificial quality of the present position in Parliament, far removed as it is from the world of political reality. What we have is the bizarre phenomenon of a Government, casting all democratic values to the winds, arrogating to itself the power to appoint both the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition as a means of consolidating its authority and suppressing robust dissent within the Chamber of Parliament.
This has a serious impact on such vital matters as the allocation of time in Parliamentary debates, the right to test the mettle of the incumbent Administration by recourse to a variety of methods, including questions on urgent matters of public importance under Standing Order 23(2), priority in respect of Adjournment Motions and, most crucially, participation in the work of a wide range of Committees within the framework of Parliament. The cost to the public well-being is immense: the balance between Government and Opposition, which is a basic assumption sustaining the systems and procedures of Parliament, is in grave jeopardy, with harmful consequences all too evident in our midst.
VI. Conclusion: The way ahead
Today, more than at any other time in our recent history, there is a dire need for an effective lever against polarization of attitudes to volatile issues. Indisputably, Parliament has a central function to perform in this regard; and a well-ordered, rather than dysfunctional, Parliament would obviously be helpful.
It is a great pity that the Government, in pursuit of a partisan agenda for short-term political advantage, has found itself ready to bring about distortion of the official Opposition, of such a degree as to inevitably cause serious loss of public confidence. Had the legitimate Opposition been accorded its proper role, with the attendant facilities essential for fulfilment of its public responsibility, an environment could have been engendered, conducive to healthy and collaborative dialogue.
All Parliamentary debates, including the upcoming Budget debate at a critical juncture, would then have a much more realistic flavour. The present situation represents a missed opportunity, but remedial measures could still be at hand if a sense of humility and self-criticism were to prevail.
"What we have is the bizarre phenomenon of a Government, casting all democratic values to the winds, arrogating to itself the power to appoint both the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition as a means of consolidating its authority and suppressing robust dissent within the Chamber of Parliament"