Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Hon'ble Speakers and their share of controversies !

"Not only Sumitra Mahajan, even other Lok Sabha Speakers had share of controversies"

The Lok Sabha Speaker Ms Sumitra Mahajan has come under attack for her alleged biased towards the ruling side. More than one Lok Sabha member has till now spoken against her, some even within the House. On Rahul Gandhi's charge on the Food park in Amethi, Congress member Hooda questioned the Speaker’s decision to allow the intervention by the minister more than once. “How can a minister give a statement five times on the same issue. Why did you allow the minister to give the statement when she had already made interventions earlier on the same issue?” an agitated Hooda asked the Speaker. 

“You check the record first and then speak. Will you say sorry if the record turned out to be against your claims?” Ms Mahajan asked  Hooda. Earlier too, other members have spoken on similar veins and in veiled manner. Congress floor leader Mallikarjun Kharge has been one of them. 

However, just at a time when the incumbent Lok Sabha Speaker Ms Sumitra Mahajan has come under attack for her alleged partisan stand vis-a-vis Narendra Modi government, a closer look suggests that the office of the Speaker in India has been subjected to criticism and controversies from time to time especially since the 1980s.

At the receiving end !!
In fact since the 8th Lok Sabha, the Speaker's role has been subjected to criticism one way or the other. Perhaps this 'controversy element' only increased many times once the coalition era set in and also coinciding with the emergence of a more vigilant media than what used to be in 1970s and before. A sitting lawmaker from Odisha cites the performance of Rabi Ray, the Speaker of the 9th Lok Sabha when V P Singh led the country's first coalition government with outside support from the Left parties and the BJP.  "Rabi Ray handled things in his matured and dignified manner than none could complain," he says. 

However, even Rabi Ray's stint was marred by a modest controversy when the Speaker declined to 
disqualify the then Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal under Chandrashekhar government when 
Devi Lal and few others were given "benefit of doubt" for defecting from V P Singh-led Janata Dal
to the Chandrashekhar group by Ray.

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The present incumbent Sumitra Mahajan's predecessor Ms Meira Kumar's tenure was also 
marred by controversies like allowing Congress member Rahul Gandhi make a 'lenghty' zero hour speech on the Anna Hazare-led agitation on Lokpal in 2011. 

The then Leader of the Opposition, Sushma Swaraj took a potshot on the episode and tried to remind Rahul Gandhi and others in the House that, "zero hour mein aap rashtra ke naam sanesh nahi dete (that you don't make a national broadcast of your speech during zero hour). 

Under the Rule 377 of Lok Sabha, 'zero hour' allows members to raise matters of public importance and make a brief reference only.

Meira Kumar also came under criticism for "not accepting" the resignation of the then 12 Congress 
MPs from Andhra Pradesh (then Telengana region) as perhaps letting the MPs give up their membership could have reduced the Manmohan Singh ministry into a minority. 

The media criticism on such alleged conduct was also not taken lightly later. An editor of a popular daily was also dragged by the Lok Sabha's privilege committee on the charge of breach of privilege.

A senior Janata Dal member of parliament in Rajya Sabha also has memories of Balram Jakhar's stint during Rajiv Gandhi era when Congress numbers was over 400. "The stint of Balram Jakhar as Speaker was marked by a major controversy when he had allowed the 'death' of Devi Lal's
grand daughter-in-law (Supriya) to be discussed in the House. So much perturbed was the Tau that 
he vowed to contest elections against Jakhar in latter's bastion Sikar in Rajasthan and was also 
successful in defeating him".
Rabi Ray: He gave 'benefit of doubt' to Devi Lal on disqualification matter!!

A soft spoken Shivraj Patil though is credited for steering the parliamentary movement to establish Parliamentary Standing Committee system, in the 10th Lok Sabha he too faced strong protest both within the House and outside on the disqualification of some Janata Dal members for 'defecting'. In one case of the first split, when Ajit Singh and 20 others walked away from Janata Dal, he took 9 months to pronounce his judgement and in another case he took two years. The delay in both instances helped Rao government which subsequently allowed 
transformation of minority P V Narasimha Rao government into a majority.

The tenure of P A Sangma did not have much controversy as the northeastern MP used his 'gifted sense of humour and the sagacity' as Narasimha Rao had said once to conduct the proceedings in the 11th Lok Sabha where in there were two coalition governments headed by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral. 

"Sangmaji understood the people's sensitivity. He disallowed G G Swell raise the issue of beef eating in the 
House more than once," says a BJP MP.

However, he adds even Sangma had brushes with his share of controversy for having spoken about the need of a 'national government' in the midst of political instability as "this statement was interpreted in a section of media as reflection of Sangma's own ambition to head such a government".

For his part, the most 'newsy' episode of Speaker Balayogi was his ambiguous ruling when he said "it's up to the conscience" of Giridhar Gamang, who as Odisha Chief Minister, had come to vote against Atal Behari Vajpayee's government in 1999. The Vajpayee government fell by one vote during that historic trial of strength.
Sangma: Used his Humour to its best
The country's only communist Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee had his share too. Like Ms Mahajan and probably few others, Chatterjee, who never failed to take high moral ground, was also accused of being partisan. None other than the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had flayed

the veteran Marxist. BJP had boycotted monsoon session in 2006 and when Speaker wrote a letter to 
Vajpayee asking him to reconsider the decision, the former PM had 

retaliated by stressing upon the need for presiding officers to be seen to be fair. 

"Legislature proceedings can be smooth if the presiding officer is able to inspire confidence in the Opposition party as much as in the ruling party — confidence in one's fairness and objectivity has to be commanded, not demanded,'' Vajpayee wrote back.

Lok Sabha also witnessed acrimony between Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and the CPI-M members on July 22, 2008 trial of strength debate. A 'bitter exchange' took place when CPI-M's Mohammad Salim, the first Left representative to speak on the motion, was about to begin his speech. Amid uproar in the House, CPI-M's floor leader Basudeb Acharia made a plea to the Speaker to bring the House to order.
The remark angered the Speaker, who immediately shot back: "You tell me how to go about it. You can come and sit here and do it yourself."
Salim and others later also felt the Speaker was possibly wrong in allowing the 'voting' on the fateful day as hours before two BJP members displayed currency allegedly given to them by the government interlocutors.
At one point when CPI-M member Salim was 'gesturing' angrily, Speaker Chatterjee screamed, "Mr Salim can you tell me whose money it is....look he is gesturing".

When all attempts to make Chatterjee step down failed, Prakash Karat later expelled him for defying the party politburo.
Marxist Somnath as Speaker perhaps befriended MMS regime too well

Tail piece:

In the 10th Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil amid some controversies on the 'absence' of a JMM MP once threw the entire House into laughter when he addressed veteran Jaswant Singh as "arey baba".
The senior BJP member had countered it, saying, "I am not baba sir....there must be something wrong in me sir that you are calling me one".

Jaswant Singh once took exception to Speaker Shivraj Patil addressing him 'arey baba' 

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