A large part of the discussion, following Friday’s No Confidence motion debates, centred on the hug and the wink. Perhaps it was to be expected. The grand gesture was seen as a surprising political manoeuvre to reach across to one’s opponent. To signal, that while ideologies will always differ in a political landscape, there is no reason that animosity must be made personal. Many pointed out that the discussion should have also focussed on issues raised by the opposition – most importantly Rafale deal, unemployment, the attacks on women, Dalits and minorities, plight of the farmers, the ill thought out GST and demonetisation, and crony capitalism and corruption. However the events also brought to forth a hitherto little discussed issue – the importance of the role of the Speaker. Journalists and Twitter users critiqued Sumitra Mahajan’s partisan role in conducting the session and raised important questions on what should be expected out of a speaker of the house.
Constitution accords a vital role to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and they derive their power and duty from (besides the constitution) the rules of procedure and conduct of business in the Lok Sabha and parliamentary conventions. As the principal spokesperson of the house their decision in all parliamentary matters is final and in this capacity the Speaker enjoys great honour and dignity. Thus absolute independence and impartiality is expected out of the speaker. To maintain this, the Speaker is provided with security of tenure and can be only removed by a resolution passed by an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Moreover their salaries and allowances are charged to the Consolidated Fund of India and are not subject to vote. They are given a high position in the order of precedence and such honourable behaviour is expected of them that their work or conduct cannot be criticised in the Lok Sabha except on a substantive motion. In fact in many parliamentary democracies, like the United Kingdom, the speaker resigns from the party membership to remain politically neutral but this desirable convention is not observed in India.
In this context the conduct of Sumitra Mahajan came under sharp attack. She chastised INC President Rahul Gandhi for the hug but allowed PM Modi to mimic Sonia Gandhi’s accent. She allowed disruptions during former’s speech, adjourned it midway, and removed references to Jay Shah and the RSS but allowed PM to refer to several people not present in the house. In her desire to give PM the prime slot of the day amounting to almost two hours, she cut short several MPs – one newly elected RLD MP from Kairana actually pleaded with her to be allowed to speak for more than a minute. Abdullah’s speech was similarly cut short.
The media noted these, and other instances. Rao in News Central wrote, in a piece called ‘No Confidence in Sumitra Mahajan – “Why So Biased, Madam?”’ that the office of Speaker has struggled to operate independently from the party that she belonged to previously. Janta Ka Reporter‘s founder, Rifat Jawaid, tweeted, “Sumitra Mahajan was so brazenly biased today. Did literally nothing to stop heckling when Rahul spoke. Was at pain to see Rahul blame RSS for hate politics. Can’t think of anyone else worse than her in Speaker’s chair. Incredibly sad moment for Indian democracy.” Journalist Swati Chaturvedi tweeted, ““Sumitra Mahajan is still batting for the Bjp as the Speaker of the House. Her little sermon on the hug is not the first she has intervened for the BJP. Madam speaker check the rule book nothing unparliamentary about a hug!” and journalist Saba Naqvi wrote, “Honestly, even by the dipping standards of partisanship displayed by constitutional offices, speaker Sumitra Mahajan is a shocker…” Journalist Sagarika Ghosh agreed, “She’s an utter disaster, openly partisan. Laughing along with her party, flustered when they’re flustered, adjourning the House when someone in the Opposition makes a good speech, visibly agitated when Amit Shah’s son’s name raised.”
Office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is vital for the bipartisan and effective functioning of democratic debates. A certain neutrality and fairness is expected from a person who sits on the chair. Premchand in his beautiful short story Panch Parmeshwar describes the importance of holding such a chair of responsibility – “The consciousness of our responsibility inspires an improvement in our narrow-mindedness. When we lose our way, it is this consciousness that becomes our most trusted guide.”
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