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The speaker & democracy

June 22, 2013

“CONFIDENCE in the impartiality of the speaker is an indispensable condition for the successful working of the procedure, and many conventions exist which have as their object not only to ensure the impartiality of the speaker but also to ensure that his impartiality is generally recognised,” Erskine May wrote in his work Parliamentary Practice.

The book, now in its 24th edition, is edited as a rule by an erudite official whose guidance is sought by presiding officers of legislatures in the Commonwealth countries, the clerk of the House of Commons, who appropriately receives a knighthood.

Four points about the work are relevant to us in South Asia. First, each new edition is dedicated to the serving speaker of the House of Commons and “to the speakers of the Commonwealth within whose hands the priceless heritage of parliament is securely held”.

Secondly, the emphasis is not only on the actual fact of the speaker’s impartiality but also on “the confidence in his impartiality”.

Thirdly, that status is buttressed by “many conventions” which exist precisely “to ensure that his impartiality is generally recognised” by the public at large.

Lastly, confidence in the speaker’s impartiality is not only desirable, even essential, but is also “an indispensable condition of the successful working” of parliament’s proceedings; at one remove of the working of parliamentary democracy itself.

The time is come when we in South Asia must ask ourselves in earnest whether that “indispensable” condition exists in our respective countries. This writer cannot opine on the record elsewhere but has no hesitation in saying that such confidence is very much in short supply in India.

Bad precedents were set early in 1937 when responsible government was introduced in the provinces under the Government of India Act, 1935.

The doctrine has come to be accepted, even by the opposition parties, that the speaker’s office is a gift in the bounty of the ruling party. This is sheer nonsense. In April 1992, Betty Boothroyd, a Labourite, was elected speaker of the House of Commons which had a Conservative majority, supporting a Conservative government led by John Major.

The government’s unofficial candidate was Peter Brooke. But seventy-four Conservatives rebelled at the thought of someone who had just left the cabinet sitting in the speaker’s chair and posing as a neutral judge of the proceedings.

In India, at least twice speakers descended from the chair to become ministers; Gurdial Singh Dillon in 1976 during the “emergency”, when democratic governance was suspended by Indira Gandhi, and Balram Jakhar later. A former speaker of the Kashmir Assembly used expletives. So did a former speaker of the Tamil Nadu Assembly.

It is well settled, as the jurist Jean Bourinot opined, that “the speaker will not give a decision upon a constitutional question, nor decide a question of law though the same be raised on a point of order”.

Nonetheless the speaker of the West Bengal Assembly ruled on the legality of a ministry in office while his counterpart in Punjab held the governor’s order summoning the assembly to be illegal. Both advised imposition of president’s rule on the states, dismissal of the ministry and suspension of provincial autonomy; all this to protect the existing government which they happened to support.

As if this was not enough, in 1985 Rajiv Gandhi had an anti-defection law enacted, by constitutional amendment, to freeze his massive majority. But, instead of vesting the power to rule on disputes in a quasi-judicial body, the Election Commission, he had it vested in a politician, the speaker elected by the majority party from one in its own midst.

An office that was already politicised became even more politicised since the stakes had risen much higher. The decline has proceeded unchecked and suggestions for reform have been studiously ignored. In this regard, two proposals deserve particular attention.

Madhu Limaye, a socialist, wrote a letter to prime minister Indira Gandhi on March 13, 1967 in which he proposed five reforms: (1) The speaker, to whichever party he belongs, must, upon election, forthwith resign from his party and declare in the house that he would hereafter function as an impartial chairman and protect the interests of every member of the house.

(2) Should the person who has held office of the speaker want to contest again, he should do so as a non-party candidate and other parties should not put up a candidate against him.

(3) No person, who has once held the office of speaker, should be offered further employment under the government in the capacity of vice president, governor, etc.

(4) The speaker, so long as he is in office should not take part in any current controversy.

(5) The speaker should be given after his retirement a pension to enable him to live in dignity and comfort.

She ignored the suggestions.

Another proposal was made by the speaker of the Lok Sabha, G.M.C. Balayogi on May 30, 2000 at a conference of speakers.

He said: “To ensure impartial working of the speaker, it is essential that the speaker should not be subjected to compulsions of day-to-day politics. The chair’s isolation and guaranteed aloofness from the mainstream of political life would enhance the dignity of the speaker’s office.”

He called for establishing a convention whereby the seat from which the speaker stood for re-election would not be contested and the speaker would not take part in party politics.

Citing the example of the British House of Commons, Balayogi said: “Once an MP is elected to the office of the speaker, he severs party connections and is expected to function impartially. If the speaker seeks re-election, he stands simply as the speaker and it is customary for the other parties not to contest the seat.”

No one cared to listen to him, either.

The decline continues.

The writer is an author and a lawyer.