Will parties abide?

Limit Speaker’s Power

By Poonam I Kaushish

Believe it or not, the Office of the Speaker has been put on the mat! As Parliament begins its new session, the Supreme Court is trying to script a new beginning for Presiding Officers of legislatures by reforming and reining their role. Of course, it remains to be seen if our Parties and MLAs play ball.
In a judgment which could have far-reaching consequences, a three-judge bench said Speakers of Parliament and State Assemblies should “rethink” whether they should continue to have powers to disqualify lawmakers as he “belongs to a particular political Party”. Asserting, disqualification petitions of members should be decided within three months except in extraordinary circumstances, it added, courts would have the powers to intervene if the proceedings are delayed.
Two, Parliament strongly consider removing the Speakers’ disqualification powers and forming an independent tribunal headed by a former Supreme Court judge, High Court ex-Chief Justice or “some other outside independent mechanism to ensure that such disputes are decided both swiftly and impartially”. The rationale for this suggestion is that Speakers invariably come from ruling Parties and act in a partisan manner.
The Court verdict was on the disqualification of a Manipur Congress MLA who joined the BJP after the 2017 Assembly elections whereby the Congress asked the Speaker to disqualify him but he failed to act and kept the petition pending.
Certainly, the verdict is welcome in light of repeated controversies over the implementation of the Anti-Defection Laws whereby MPs/MLAs hop from one Party to another, often after an inducement with a pliant Speaker looking the other way or keeping his order in abeyance indefinitely to aide his mai-baaps. Indeed, this has been the norm over the past seven decades whereby there are plenty of instances of Speakers playing partisan politics.
As a former Lok Sabha Speaker confided, “We are elected on Party tickets with Party funds and even if I resign on becoming the Speaker, we would still have to go back to the same Party for sponsorship for the next election. So how can I claim independence? How can I give a verdict unfavourable to my Party and go against the Party’s interest.”
Any wonder that no eyebrows are raised at the Centre and States when MP-MLAs-Speaker roles are inter-changed at a drop of a hat. Whereby, Parties have used Constitutional posts as lollipops to reward or oblige Party workers, the Speakership is no exception. Ruling Party Ministers and MPs accept Speakership only to help their Government and indulge them.
Be it the BJP, Congress or X,Y,Z. Think. The present Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla was an erstwhile Party MLA in Rajasthan or his Congress erstwhile predecessors, Meira Kumar an MP and Minister, Shivraj Patil who post Speakership, lost the re-election, but was nominated by Congress to the Rajya Sabha and anointed Home Minister, Balram Jhakar never concealed his identity as a Congressman, Rabi Ray lived up to his Janata Party’s expectation.
More scandalous is the situation in the States. Wherein, it is increasingly difficult to keep track of Minister’s becoming Speaker’s and vice versa. Be it Karnataka, North East States, Goa, UP, Tamil Nadu etc.
Call it oversight or what you may, but as the Lok Sabha Rules of Procedure are largely based on Britain’s Westminster model of Parliamentary democracy, the all-important issue of an independent Speaker was overlooked. Under this system, an MP resigns from the Party on his election as Speaker and is re-elected unopposed to the House of Commons in subsequent elections.
However, in India the rules give the Speaker absolute discretion to decide on all issues, be it deciding the admissibility of a question, admitting an adjournment motion, deciding on Committee reports or mundane things like who should speak and for how long etc. In fact, he enjoys greater power than any other Speaker world-wide.
Bringing things to such a pass that he seems to have acquired a “larger than life image and role”, so like a school teacher whereby he has become the primus entre peri. A kind of a demi-God who can do no wrong, and whose actions are unquestionable. Forgotten in the quintessential position, is the fact that the Speaker who is essentially the servant of the House has fast become its master, thanks to the rules of procedure.
What next? In a milieu, where ruthless politics has taken over, the Speaker’s role has become all the more important and demanding. Few appreciate even today the key role he plays without whom, according to Erskine May, “the House has no Constitutional existence.” Nehru repeatedly emphasised the importance of the Office of the Speaker and laid emphasis on its prestige and authority.
Said he in 1958: “The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House, the freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that his should be an honoured position, a free position and should be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality.”
Clearly, it is time to give serious thought to rectifying the flaws in our system and urgently overhauling it. Rules have to be drastically changed to put Parliament and Assemblies back on the rails. We need to look afresh at the Speaker’s powers and establish the supremacy of the House along-with ensuring he acts and maintains neutrality and none can hold him to ransom and neither he plays favourites.
True, there is no magic remedy. The process has to be slow and long. Undoubtedly, the Presiding Officer has to walk a tight rope. He has to ensure among other things that the Opposition has its say even as the Government has its way. Also, not many are aware the Speaker has “no right” to expunge anything other than what is unparliamentary or to direct that “this will not go on record”. As it strikes at the freedom of speech guaranteed to members. Time we change the rules and make sure the Speaker is the servant of the House not its master!
On hopes things will change after the Supreme Court’s rap whereby Speakers act objectively and dispassionately. He must recognize he plays a key role in maintain India’s democratic credentials impartially like a true servant with total loyalty and devotion. By adopting the British maxim: “Once Speaker always Speaker”
One sure way of achieving the impartiality and independence of the Speaker is to depoliticize his office, so that the Speaker could keep himself entirely aloof from Party politics. Another more important way was to provide for his uncontested return to the House.
Happily, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla concurs with the Apex Court’s order, stating, “Powers of Presiding Officers in legislatures should be “limited” as this will help maintain the tradition of healthy democracy so that no court needs to make a comment.”
In the final analysis, Speakers need to heed Indira Gandhi’s words: “Parliament is a bulwark of democracy… It also has a very heavy task of keeping an image that will gain it the faith and respect of the people. Because, if that is lost, then I don’t know what could happen later.” That faith and respect requires to be restored and built by the Speaker through a new chapter. Will our Parties abide? —INFA