Of the house, for the house
By Poonam I Kaushish
It’s the season of parades galore and prize catches. Specially in Bihar where the political arena resembles a Spanish bull-ring following the demise of BJP-JD(U) Government and resurrection of the old Mahagathbandhan JD(U)-RJD-Congress-HUM etc with “somersaulting” Nitish again Chief Minister for eighth time.
Playing Matador to the hilt, the new Government which is set to prove its majority in a special Assembly session 24-25 August has also brought a no-confidence motion against Assembly Speaker Vijay Sinha, BJP MLA as he has not resigned which goes against convention after Government change. Asserted JD(U) spokesman “The Speaker can be removed by an Assembly resolution passed by majority. As we have 164 against BJP’s 77 MLAs it is a no brainer.”
The issue is not whether the Speaker resigns or removed, nor that Parties have used this post as lollipop to reward or oblige a Party worker, neither that it has sounded another death knell to a Constitutional institution. But why he so important in the Constitutional scheme of things?
Primarily, as the Speaker represents the House, its dignity, freedom and liberty. According to Erskine May, “The House has no Constitutional existence without him.” He has to ensure Opposition has its say even as Government has its way. His rulings and decisions can make or break the ruling Party. His casting vote can swing the balance either way. Expected to be above Party politics and not the ruling Party’s puppet.
If a Party splits the Speaker decides whether it is a “split” or defection case. His ruling is binding. By this one act he can “destroy” a Party and facilitate another’s rule. Recall, Chandra Shekhar’s famous split which led to VP Singh’s Government fall. Besides, his powers to use, misuse or abuse Anti-Defection Act which bestows the power of deciding whether a representative has become subject to disqualification, post their defection on the Speaker offering ample scope to him to exercise discretion and play political favourites, ignoring the letter and spirit of the Act.
The recent fracas in Maharashtra whereby 15 MLAs led by Shinde were disqualified by Assembly’s Dy Speaker followed by Shinde-anointed Speaker disqualifying Thackeray-led MLAs. In Madhya Pradesh 2020 22 Congress rebel MLAs led by Jyotiraditya Scindia sent their resignation to Assembly Speaker who accepted their resignations only a day before the Supreme Court ordered a floor test which culminated in Kamal Nath’s Government falling.
In July 2019 Karnataka Assembly Speaker disqualified 11 Congress and three JD(S) MLAs leading to collapse of Kumaraswamy’s Government. In 2015-16 BJP had only 11 MLAs and support of 2 Independents in Arunachal but engineered defections by winning over 21 of 47 Congress MLAs in the 60-Member Assembly. The Speaker disqualified 14 MLAs, simultaneously BJP held an extraordinary session wherein rebel Congress-BJP MLAs removed the Speaker. While Gauwhati High Court upheld the disqualification, Supreme Court refused to give a verdict on disqualification but restored Congress Government in July 2016.
Ditto in Uttarakhand where Speaker disqualified 9 Congress rebel MLAs for voting against the Appropriations Bill despite them not leaving Congress or voting against it in the Assembly. The MLAs joined BJP and upstaged Congress Government in 2016. This was preceded by 25 BJP and 9 Congress rebel MLAs moving an impeachment motion against the Speaker. The Uttarakhand High Court upheld the disqualification but Supreme Court ordered a trust vote which led to restoration of Congress Government in May 2016.
Alas, its par for the course when MPs-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.
From second Speaker Ayyangar who became Bihar Governor on his term’s expiry to GS Dhillon and Manohar Joshi who switched roles from Ministers to Speakers, Balram Jhakar never concealed his identity as Congressman, Rabi Ray lived up to his Janata Party’s expectation and Shivraj Patil who post Speakership, lost the re-election, but was nominated by Congress to Rajya Sabha and anointed Home Minister. In UPA I Congress MP and Minister Meira Kumar became Lok Sabha Speaker in UPA II. Today eyebrows are not even raised.
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 Parliament and State Assemblies, with a partisan Speaker in the vanguard of eroding India’s democratic character. In the just concluded Parliament monsoon session 27 MPs were suspended. Bringing things to such a pass whereby a Speaker seems to have acquired a “larger than life image and role” and 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 Speaker who is essentially servant of the House has fast become its master, thanks to rules of procedure. Highlighting, falling standards in conducting legislative business in Parliament and Assemblies and need to clearly define these.
Undoubtedly, the Speaker’s position is paradoxical. He contests election for Parliament or State Assembly and then for the post on a Party ticket, and yet is expected to conduct himself 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 Speaker, we would still have to go back to the Party for sponsorship for next election.”
Where does one go from here? Time to look afresh at the Speaker’s powers, depoliticize his office, promote neutrality. Under the Westminster model, Speaker should resign from his Party on his election and is re-elected unopposed in subsequent elections in House of Commons. Lok Sabha and Assembly Speaker’s impartiality is more important as he has more absolute powers than his House of Commons’s counterpart.
Succinctly, the Speaker is of the House, by the House and for the House. He has to place himself in a judge’s position, not become partisan so as to avoid unconscious bias for or against a particular view thus inspiring confidence in all sections of the House about his integrity and impartiality.
Late CPM MP Somnath Chatterrjee is a beacon. He refused to resign as Lok Sabha Speaker after Left withdrew support to UPA I Government over the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2008. Saying Speaker’s office was a high Constitutional post and above politics. Like him we need to adopt the maxim: “once a Speaker, always a Speaker.” —— INFA