Speaker caught in desert storm

Political & Partisan

By Poonam I Kaushish

A charade of duplicity or theatre of bias? For nearly a week now, the fast spinning political wheel of the ongoing Rajasthan roulette has left everyone guessing. The grubby tale has its genesis in Rajasthan Dy Chief Minister and Congress Chief Sachin Pilot and his 18 MLAs brood being sacked earlier this week after they rebelled against Chief Minister Gehlot.
Topped, by Assembly Speaker CP Joshi issuing notice to explain why they should not be disqualified for defying a whip by their no-show at two Legislature Party meetings under paragraph 2 (1) (a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. A provision which disqualifies MLAs if they “voluntarily” give up the membership of the party which they represent in the House.
Threatened Pilot and Co move Rajasthan High Court against the Speaker’s disqualification notice which asks Joshi not to take any decision till 5 PM today. Contends his lawyer ex-Solicitor General Harish Salve that “acts outside the House are not violation of Anti-Defection Law as a Party whip applies only when the Assembly is in session, hence one cannot disqualify MLAs for not attending a meeting.” Adding, “raising disagreements regarding ‘dictatorial functioning’ of a Chief Minister is an internal matter and doesn’t amount to defection,” as it is an issue of freedom of speech of legislators.
The issue is not whether Pilot will remain in the Congress, switch to the BJP like many other Congressmen before him or risk announcing his own political outfit. More important it puts the spotlight once again on the Speaker’s role with their penchant for using, mis-using or abusing their powers specially the Anti-Defection Law.
Over the years, there have been instances aplenty where the Speaker has precipitated a crisis by seemingly political decisions by being deeply involved and playing partisan politics. An example, the Anti-Defection Law which bestows the power of deciding whether a representative has become subject to disqualification, post their defection, is made by the Speaker offering ample scope to him to exercise discretion and play political favourites, ignoring the letter and spirit of the anti-Defection Law
Undeniable since it came to power in 2014 the BJP has been busy preparing for a saffron waltz in various Opposition-ruled States with its proven prowess at toppling Governments. Recall, a few months ago, 22 Congress rebel MLAs led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, including six Ministers, sent in their resignation to Madhya Pradesh Speaker Prajapati. While the MLAs were kept in a resort in Bengaluru, Prajapati accepted their resignations only a day before the Supreme Court ordered a floor test which culminated in the fall of Kamal Nath’s Government. It’s another matter the defectors are Ministers in the BJP Sarkar.
In July 2019 Karnataka Assembly Speaker Ramesh Kumar disqualified 11 Congress and three from JD(S) MLAs whose resignations were pending with him leading to the collapse of Kumaraswamy’s Government. The MLAs were disqualified for the remaining term of the Assembly and not allowed to contest polls till the term ended. However, they won a reprieve from the Supreme Court which while endorsing the Speaker’s disqualification allowed the defectors to contest the by-polls, which they did as BJP candidates. And many who won were made Ministers in the BJP Government.
In 2015-16 the BJP which had only 11 MLAs and support of 2 Independents in Arunachal Pradesh engineered defections by winning over 21 of 47 Congress MLAs in the 60-Member Assembly. The Speaker disqualified 14 of the rebel MLAs who were opposed to the Chief Minister Tuki. Simultaneously the BJP held an extraordinary session in a community hall wherein rebel Congress-BJP MLAs removed the Speaker. While the Gauwhati High Court upheld the disqualification, the Supreme Court refused to give a verdict on the disqualification but restored the Tuki government in July 2016.
Ditto in Uttarakhand where the Speaker disqualified nine Congress rebel MLAs ostensibly for voting against the Appropriations Bill despite the MLAs not leaving the Congress or voting against it in the Assembly. The MLAs joined the BJP and upstaged the Harish Rawat-led Congress Government in 2016. This was preceded by 25 BJP and the nine Congress rebel MLAs moving an impeachment motion against the Speaker. The Uttarakhand High Court upheld the disqualification but the Supreme Court ordered a trust vote which led to restoration of Rawat’s Government in May 2016.
In the 1990’s Meghalaya Speaker suspended the voting rights and later even disqualified five MLAs just prior to a no-confidence motion. In 1988 Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker Pandian disqualified six senior AIADMK Ministers for giving up their Party membership, along with 27 other MLAs (disqualified for not attending a confidence motion), identified with the pro-Jayalalithaa faction.
Alas, its par for the course when MLAs-Speaker roles are inter-changed at a drop of a hat. Whereby, ruling Party Ministers, MPs and MLAs accept Speakership only to exploit the office for richer political dividends. Whereby, it is increasingly difficult to keep track of Minister’s becoming Speaker’s and vice versa.
Think. In Indira Gandhi’s era Dhillion shuffled between being Speaker for two terms and then made Union Minister for Shipping in 1975. In UPA I Meira Kumar was a Congress MP and Minister and became Lok Sabha Speaker in UPA II. As her erstwhile predecessors, Shivraj Patil, Sangma, Balram Jhakar et al. More scandalous is the situation in the States. In Goa former Chief Minister Pratap Rane was Speaker and in J&K Lone, a confidant of then Chief Minister Omar Abdullah presided over the Assembly in 2011.
Undoubtedly, the Speaker’s position is paradoxical. He contests the election for Parliament or State Assembly and then for the post on a Party ticket, and yet is expected to conduct himself or herself in a non-partisan manner, all the while being beholden to the Party for a ticket for the next election.
Confided a former Lok Sabha Speaker: “We are elected on Party tickets with Party funds. How can we claim independence? Moreover, even if we resign on becoming the Speaker, we would still have to go back to the same Party for sponsorship for the next election.”
The entirety of a Speaker’s decisions can also be an inducement for abuse. Instances of suspension of almost all DMK MLAs who were evicted en masse from the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 2016 while protesting or the violence in the J&K Assembly resulting in senior PDP leaders hurling abuses and a pedestal fan at the Speaker raise crucial questions about the health of our democracy.
Such suspensions are increasingly becoming common across State Assemblies, with a partisan Speaker in the vanguard of eroding India’s democratic character. Bringing things to such a pass that the Speaker 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. Highlighting, falling standards in conducting legislative business in Assemblies and bringing into sharp focus the Speaker’s role and powers. And, the need to clearly define these.
True, the rules of procedure give the Speaker absolute discretion to decide on all issues but his approach to important issues ignores much that is expected of him in accordance with time-honoured conventions. Pertinently, his extraordinary power was given to guide proceedings of the House effectively in the formative period and to help build healthy conventions and a strong Opposition in the best national interest without whom, according to Erskine May, “the House has no Constitutional existence.”
Where does one go from here? Time to look afresh at the Speaker’s powers establish the supremacy of the House. Remember, the Speaker is the servant of the House not its master! Time we condition ourselves to expecting and promoting neutrality in the Speaker and contain the raging desert storm. —— INFA