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Presiding officers must run Parliament sans bias

India’s parliamentary traditions are being trampled by presiding officers at the behest of their party.

Presiding officers must run Parliament sans bias

Allegiance: Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla’s resolution against the Emergency indicated his party loyalty. PTI

Ajay K Mehra

Political scientist

The Speaker is thus for all practical purposes impartial, and the House can leave to him the important judicial functions of deciding all points of order.

— Sir Ivor Jennings, Parliament, Cambridge University Press, 1957

AS the 18th Lok Sabha assembled for its first session on June 24, partisanship began from where the parties had left it off in the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas, which had the BJP in the majority. Obviously, the race for and the ‘election’ of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the conduct of the subsequent proceedings of the House were far from ‘impartial’, a condition that Sir Jennings recorded and analysed in considerable detail in his monumental study of the British Parliament.

In fact, not given to respect for the Constitution, let alone its convention, the Narendra Modi-led BJP asserted that it would ensure that Parliament functioned on its bidding, even by exhibiting partisanship. Thus, the age-old convention of the Westminster model being followed since the Constitution was inaugurated in both the Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assemblies — of the senior-most member of the House being appointed as the pro tem Speaker for administering the oath to the newly elected MPs — was given the go-by, because then the role would have been assigned to a Congress MP. Hence, the second senior-most member, who belonged to the BJP, was given the chair.

Obviously, any Opposition suggestion for a consensus was unlikely to be expected in the political assertion that ‘acceptance of our choice is consensus’. This happened despite the fact that the people snatched away the Modi-led BJP’s absolute majority in the Lok Sabha this year, reducing it from 303 seats to 240. The pre-poll National Democratic Alliance (NDA) became a saving grace, enabling it to form the government with 293 MPs. The return of the Congress with 99 seats and the broad-based Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) with 234 seats completed the story of juxtaposing the treasury benches with an Opposition that can assert itself. The office of the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) brought Rahul Gandhi in the lead.

However, despite first proposing a contest for the speakership, INDIA supported the NDA’s (read Modi’s) choice, previous Speaker Om Birla, expecting the assigning of the deputy speakership to the Opposition, a Westminster convention that India has mostly followed. But in order to deny the Opposition this privilege, the position has been kept vacant for a decade. The continuing silence on this is ominous.

The question of the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha is settled when a regime selects the Vice-President of India, who is the ex-officio chairman of the House. Article 89, which mandates this, also obligates the election of the deputy chairman from among the members. There is neither a constitutional provision nor a convention to offer this position to the Opposition. However, there have been several occasions since 1952 when an Opposition MP has occupied this post.

The conventions in the UK clearly suggest that “once a Speaker is appointed, he divests himself of his party character and is prevented from advocating the claims of his constituents.”

Conditioned in the Westminster system, India began with a healthy practice when Vithalbhai Patel severed his ties with the Swaraj Party and declined to walk out with the legislators in 1926. He followed the tradition in 1927 also. On his election as the Speaker of the Central Assembly in 1946, GV Mavalankar said, “Though a Congressman… it would be my duty to be impartial and remain above all considerations of party…” In March 1956, MA Ayyangar resigned from the Congress on assuming the office of the Speaker.

Sardar Hukam Singh (Lok Sabha Speaker from 1962 to 1967) acquitted himself well. However, he observed that the dependence of an incumbent or aspirant on the majority party for election to the chair made her/him vulnerable to the diktats of the ruling parties. No wonder that by the 1970s, the impartiality of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha had weakened. While Somnath Chatterjee (2004-09) elevated the office with his impartiality, some such as Bali Ram Bhagat and Balram Jakhar served in the Union Cabinet later.

As Birla was ushered to the Speaker’s chair by the Prime Minister and the LoP, his bowed handshake with the former and the stiff-backed one with the latter made his loyalty clear. Then, Birla objected when Shashi Tharoor finished taking his oath as an MP on June 27 by saying ‘Jai Samvidhan’. Further, when Deepender Hooda asked why there was an objection to an oath hailing the Constitution, Birla snubbed him and asked him to sit down (chalo baitho). This was obviously a signal of an assertive partisanship.

Birla’s resolution condemning the 1975 Emergency, apparently on the instructions of the PM, was a brazen sign of his party loyalty. He also expunged critical comments made by Rahul Gandhi against the PM, the BJP and the RSS under Rule 380 of the Rules and Procedure for the Lok Sabha. The person who had expelled 100 Opposition MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha for the unhindered passage of certain controversial Bills has demonstrated his allegiance to the ruling party.

Performing a dual role, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar had also suspended 46 MPs to facilitate the passage of Bills during the previous Parliament. He continues to be partisan in conducting the Rajya Sabha proceedings — denying Opposition MPs time to speak and expunging their interventions criticising the government.

India’s parliamentary traditions are being trampled by both presiding officers at the behest of their party, smudging the Westminster traditions.

#Lok Sabha

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