Highest chair

A Speaker has no direct role in correcting maladministration. He cannot drag India from the 66th place in the World Bank Government Efficiency Index where it is languishing

Indian television viewers probably assumed that the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition and the parliamentary affairs minister accompanied the new Lok Sabha Speaker to his chair out of respect for the representative of “the sovereign will of the entire nation” (quoting Purushottam Ganesh Mavalankar, an independent member of Parliament whose father was the first Lok Sabha Speaker). They were wrong. He was being ‘dragged unwillingly’ to what could have been his doom.

This is another inheritance from the Mother of Democracy, which celebrated its own rebirth this week and will soon drag one of its own members ‘kicking and screaming’ to the Speaker’s chair. Canadians, too, joyously enact a ceremony that goes back to a time when Speakers bearing allegiance to the liberty of Parliament, rather than the monarch’s will, often had to convey messages that displeased the king. As messengers became the message, they needed some nudging towards a chair that might lead to the gallows or the block. Seven English Speakers were executed between 1394 and 1535.

Bijoy Kumar Banerjee, West Bengal’s sixth Speaker, might have come nearest to sharing their grim fate. He made history on November 30, 1967 by adjourning the assembly because Governor Dharma Vira had sacked Ajoy Mukherjee as chief minister and replaced him with Prafulla Chandra Ghosh “behind the back” of legislators. Dharma Vira took his revenge by proroguing the legislature. A similar but unrelated decision in London prompted a banner in the palace of Westminster screaming “ONLY ROGUES PROROGUE” much to the amazement of a political delegation from Beirut.

Banerjee took his cue from Syed Nausher Ali, undivided Bengal’s Speaker, who laid down in March 1945 that only the legislature can appoint or dismiss ministers and that the governor is no more than a “registering authority”. Staying on in India after Partition, Ali fell out with Jawaharlal Nehru for vehemently opposing the Preventive Detention Act in the Rajya Sabha where he was a Congress member.

Banerjee should be classed with William Lenthall who served as House of Commons Speaker for nearly 20 years, both before and after Charles I’s execution, and braved royal wrath on January 4, 1642 when Charles stormed into the Commons with 400 armed men to seize five members accused of treason. When Charles asked where they were, Lenthall replied — after taking off his hat and bending the knee to disagree “respectfully” as Rahul Gandhi would have put it — “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me.” He was the first Speaker to declare the loyalty to legislative liberty rather than the royal will that is still expected to inspire governance.

Fings ain’t wot they used t’be, as the old musical had it. However, the crux of the issue remains. Representing the populace, a good Speaker still must not court the powers that be. Rahul Gandhi may have hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the deference that Om Birla showed to Narendra Modi reeked of subservience. Despite Modi’s “balak buddhi” taunt, Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, who called the senior Mavalankar (Ganesh Vasudev) “Father of the Lok Sabha”, would have approved of the blend of pragmatism and modernity with which the new leader of the Opposition rejected the explanation that Indians “bow down to the elders and even touch their feet if need be”. Calcutta was treated to a similar exposition of orthodoxy that looked like servility when Anuradha Lohia, the then vice-chancellor of Presidency University, flopped down before Mamata Banerjee, saying she reserved the pranam for “any older person or anyone of status”. Perhaps anticipating Birla and the future, she added, “I am a Marwari.”

Modi’s smiling graciousness during the ceremony compounded the enigma. Was he trying to inject personal cordiality into dry politics? Or was a sinister plot afoot to co-opt the holder of “the most exalted position that is in the custody of the House” (Mavalankar Sr.) into the establishment? The episode recalled the scene in Doctor Zhivago where Yuri Andreievich Zhivago, returning from the battlefield to find his house overrun by revolutionary squatters, keeps murmuring “You are welcome!” until one of them snaps that it was not for him to welcome anybody.

The concept of a Speaker being above the fray emerged long before the hexagonal extravaganza that has raised concerns about an atmanirbhar India brandishing a monarchical sceptre and flaunting Akhand Bharat’s massive territorial sweep. Acknowledging his authority, as in Westminster, Rahul Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha, “I duly, respectfully, accept your views sir, but I want to tell you that there is no one bigger than the Speaker in the House.”

Many other legislative procedures go back beyond the senior Mavalankar to India’s first de facto Speaker, Vithalbhai Patel, president of the Central Legislative Assembly, about whom a curious tale was told. Vithalbhai was a locally trained lawyer practising in a mofussil court in Gujarat when, one day, the postman delivered a packet addressed to “Mr. V.J. Patel, Pleader” containing a passport and travel tickets. They had been ordered by his younger brother, Vallabhbhai, the future Sardar, who also dreamt of studying in England and had saved money for the purpose. Vithalbhai insisted on travelling on those documents, claiming that it would be socially scandalous for an older brother to follow the younger’s lead.

Birla has inherited a solemn responsibility at a dire stage in India’s evolution. Millions of young Indians — 45.4% of them aged between 20 and 24 being unemployed — face a bleak future because of venal officials and a corrupted examination system. The national plight was highlighted when more than 50 lakh men clamoured for 60,244 vacancies for police constables in Modi’s showpiece state of Uttar Pradesh where 15 lakh women also sought 12,000 reserved posts. Those figures are far more relevant than the alleged 29-fold increase in spending abroad by Indians or the boast of receiving the world’s highest foreign remittances.

A Speaker has no direct role in correcting maladministration. He cannot drag India from the 66th place in the World Bank Government Efficiency Index where it is languishing. He is not responsible for the country’s newest and most expensive temple leaking even before completion. He cannot be blamed for fatal stampedes, or prevent bridges and airport canopies collapsing before being used or Muslim houses being demolished on the grounds of illegal construction. He cannot correct the imbalance that denies 14% of the population any representation in its federal government.

But as the epitome of constitutional propriety, he can ensure that our democracy is not reduced to a farce. The suspension of 146 members of Parliament posed questions about the validity of laws that were passed in their absence. Thanks to the anti-defection law, he can decide whether a parliamentarian should be disqualified for opposing the party whip and whether so-called anti-party activities merit disqualification. He can take a moral stand on boasts like overtaking Britain’s economy that testifies to the failure of family planning without reflecting any real achievement. By refusing Rahul Gandhi’s plea for a full-fledged debate on the examination scandal, the Speaker denied Indians the chance to realise that propaganda alone cannot realise Nehru’s dream of “a country of quality”.

The hirsute ‘godmen’, pretentious sceptre, extravagant temples, obscurantist ritual and fantasies like immaculate conception can be overlooked as long as the spirit of independence survives. That is why despite Modi’s repeated claim, it’s Britain and not India that is hailed as the Mother of Democracy. Perhaps the current Singaporean practice of the prime minister nominating the Speaker who is then appointed by Parliament and can be partisan would better suit India’s evolving polity. But that means a constitutional amendment which is thankfully not possible since voters denied the government the “400-paar” endorsement it famously demanded.

Author: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

Source: The Telegraph online