Mainstream

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > September 6, 2008 > Bravo! Mr Speaker, Sir

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Bravo! Mr Speaker, Sir

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by D. Bandyopadhyay

The nation watched with horror the shenanigans in the Lok Sabha on July 21-22, 2008 during the debate on the motion seeking confidence on the Union Council of Ministers. For two long days it was an agony for any intelligent and informed citizen of the country to watch the performance, nay, antics verging on buffoonery of our members of Lok Sabha, desecrating our temple of democracy and converting into an arena of tomfoolery and horse trade of an ugly variety.

The subject matter was the Indo-American nuclear deal. There are strong points both in favour and, perhaps, more so against. One could have expected that this debate would clear up the cobwebs deliberately inserted into the whole affair to divert the attention of the general public. The Lok Sabha general elections being so near, one would have expected that both the government and the Opposition would try to enlighten the voters of the relative merits of their respective stands. Barring a couple of speeches, the debate created more noise, din and pandemonium, more confusing the issue than clarifying it. Atomic power plants would, perhaps, light up the highly indebted Kalavatis two or three decades hence, provided Kalavati or her successors in interest would have money to get the connection. But it was not clear why she would have to wait for the atomic power plant to light up her hovel which could easily have been done through power generated by fossil fuel at a cheaper cost. And, of course, the wads of currency notes displayed in the House brought down the prestige of the House to an abysmal depth. One wonders whom have the people of India chosen to be their representatives to the High Court of Parliament. Both the Houses of Parliament exercise judicial power and the judiciary even in India with a written Constitution does not interfere with the judicial powers exercised by either House. Thus, the Speaker is not only a non-partisan member of the Lok Sabha, charged with the function of smooth conduct of the business of the House, he is the High Judge when the House converts itself into a judicial forum.

In the UK, the Speaker is held in such high respect for his independence, impartiality, neutrality and non-partisanship that he/she gets elected unopposed from the same constituency.

In 1935, in face of some disapproval from their parliamentary leaders, the local organisation of the Labour Party decided to oppose the sitting Speaker in his constituency. For many years the return of the successive Speakers to Parliament had been unopposed. … The Speaker contested the election and was returned by an overwhelming majority. Since that date the Speaker has been unsuccessfully opposed on several occasions as has the re-election of a sitting Speaker by the House of Commons itself”. (Dicey, A.V., Law of the Constitution, Indian Reprint, 2003 pp xxvi-vii)

EVEN though we do not have such a strong tradition regarding Speakership, the Speaker is recognised as a high parliamentary functionary who always acts above narrow partisan interest. In this whole murky affair which took place in the Lok Sabha on July 21-22, 2008, one person came out as a shining hero—that was the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee.

Undoubtedly he was a member of the CPI-M. It was on the CPI-M ticket that he got elected to the Lok Sabha on 10 occasions. But he was the consensus Speaker of the current Lok Sabha. If he had contested as a CPI-M MP he would have lost. Hence he was not a CPI-M Speaker but he was the Speaker of the House with the consent of all the parties. And he behaved, as he was expected to, in a non-partisan and independent way throughout the proceedings of those two days. That was the high water-mark in the entire proceedings.

It was quite improper of Prakash Karat to put his name along with names of all other CPI-M members withdrawing support to the UPA Government. In fact, Karat took advantage of a technical mistake committed by Chatterjee. On his being elected Speaker he should have stopped renewing his membership of the party. Since he remained a member of the party, the party boss exercised his power to issue a whip. But being a non-party Speaker, that whip could not apply to Chatterjee. Secondly, it would have been better if he had totally disassociated with some of the State Government organisations like the Santiniketan Development Board as soon as he was elected unanimously to the post of Speaker. Thirdly, he should not have visited party offices when on tour. Some might argue that these were minor issues. But for a high visibility person like Speaker, he has to be not only fair but should seen to have been fair.
By not succumbing to the partisan pressure, drawing the wrath of the party don, and getting himself expelled from the party, he enhanced the prestige, reputation and the stature of the high office of the Speaker and thereby that of the House he presides over. He has done a signal service to the institution of parliamentary democracy in India.

True to the tradition of the mother of Parliament he should seek election from a constituency of his choice as a non-party candidate with the consent with other major parties. The CPI-M would certainly oppose him as did the Labour Party in England in 1935, but that party would certainly lose. Bravo! Mr Speaker, Sir for upholding the fair name of the high office of the Speaker, for bearing “true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established” and for faithfully discharging the duty cast upon you as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

(Courtesy : The Statesman)

The author is a former Secretary to the Union Ministries of Finance (Revenue) and Rural Development and the former Executive Director, Asian Development Bank.

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.