Gandhi Takes Leader of Opposition Role in India’s Parliament

(Bloomberg) -- India’s opposition is gearing up to play a bigger role in the parliament, naming Rahul Gandhi into a key position and fielding its own candidate for speaker of the house in a rare contest for the post.

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Gandhi was selected leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, his party said Tuesday, a post that’s been vacant in the first decade of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule. The opposition put up its own candidate for the speaker post, a largely symbolic move that was defeated Wednesday by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, who elected the incumbent Om Birla to the role.

The opposition alliance, led by Gandhi’s Indian National Congress, prevented the BJP from winning an outright majority in recent elections. The opposition won about 230 of the 543 seats in the lower house of parliament, with the Congress party gaining 99 seats on its own — the first time in a decade that an opposition party won more than 10% of the seats needed to stake a claim to the post of opposition leader.

This will be the first constitutional post for Gandhi, 54, a five-time lawmaker who comes from a long line of leaders who’ve dominated politics since India’s independence from Britain. He’s the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence leader, and his father and grandmother were former prime ministers.

As leader of the opposition, Gandhi will be involved in the selection of India’s election commissioners, the chief of India’s federal investigative agency and several other constitutional positions. He’ll have the same rank as a cabinet minister, allowing him to discuss national issues with visiting heads of state.

“It is very important that the voice of the opposition is allowed to be represented in this house,” Gandhi told lawmakers Wednesday in his first speech as the leader of the opposition. “This election has shown that the people of India expect the opposition to defend the constitution.”

Modi often attacks Gandhi for his privileged background, calling him a prince who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Gandhi attempted to shake that image by embarking on weeks-long yatras, or foot journeys, in 2022 and this year, traversing across the country to connect with mainly rural voters. The opposition’s successful campaign during the elections was largely focused on improving the lives of the poor and lower-caste individuals, and creating more jobs for young people.

The BJP-led government’s selection of Birla to the speaker of parliament position shows Modi is seeking continuity despite his party’s worse-than-expected performance in the elections. Modi also retained his top cabinet ministers in their roles, including Nirmala Sitharaman as finance minister.

“Mr Modi is a person who wants to send a signal both at home and abroad that it is business as usual,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “He doesn’t want to send a signal of any weakness or compromise.”

The parliament has held elections for the speaker position only a handful of times in India’s post-independence history, with the last contest taking place in 1998.

--With assistance from Ruchi Bhatia and Swati Gupta.

(Updates with comments from Gandhi.)

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