Thursday, July 18, 2024

Opposition voices on major issues have to be given adequate scope to be heard


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Lok Sabha Speaker has to function impartially in interests of vibrant democracy

By Harihar Swarup

A contested election for the post of Lok Sabha Speaker is a sign of a broadening divide between the treasury and opposition benches. Before Independence contests for the position of president (equivalent of modern-day speaker) were quite common. In the first election in 1925, Vithal Bhai Patel defeated his government nominee by two votes. He went on to lay the institutional foundations for the independence of the Speaker’s office.
The next exciting contest was in 1946. In this election, the colonial government thought its nominee would win. But to its surprise, its supporting members cross voted, leading to G V Mavalankar’s election by a margin of three votes. Government was incensed and wanted to examine the ballot papers to identify which of its members had voted Mavalankar. Anticipating such an eventuality Assembly secretary destroyed the ballot papers.
In a parliamentary democracy where the Government is answerable to the legislature, a non-partisan speaker is critical. It’s one of the most challenging offices. It combines constitutional responsibility with a political milestone. When the electoral verdict is that of a majority government, the Speaker has to ensure adequate space for minority voices and not allow the government to ride roughshod over them.
In a coalition scenario, speakers are under pressure from their party to secure government’s continuity and ensure the passage of its legislative business. Speakers have to walk a fine line, where they are not with any side but belong to the entire house. In both these situations, the Speaker must ensure that the House fulfills the Constitutional mandate of a deliberative legislature.
In 1952, when Mavalankar became the Speaker of the first Lok Sabha, he started the convention to ensure Speaker’s impartiality. In his acceptance speech as Speaker, he highlighted the British convention about Speakership, “the principle of which is that, once a Speaker, he is not opposed by any party in the matter of his election, whether in the Constituency or in the house, so long as he wishes to continue as Speaker”.
He championed this issue in parliamentary forums and pushed it with the Congress party. The party, however, felt that “this was not a feasible proposition for the present in view of other political parties being involved in the question. “Since then the practice has been that political parties come to a consensus, and the Speaker is usually elected from the majority party.
Part of the consensus-building exercise is that the post of Deputy Speaker often goes to the Opposition party/parties.
Over the years, the job of the Speaker has become more complex and contentious. His responsibility is to conduct the proceedings of the House on the colonial principle that Government will decide agenda for the debate in the national legislature. The rules of both the houses of Parliament also prescribe that Government business also takes priority. As if this were not enough in 1985, the anti-defection law gave Speakers the power to decide on the party whip and for anti-party activities. They could now make or break parties and ruling governments..
Some of these structural issues have become more prominent now. They have led to successive governments shying away from uncomfortable debates in Parliament, and ministers are requesting the Speaker to exercise his/her discretion in fast-tracking government business by allocating limited space for Opposition. As a result inadequate scrutiny of government bills by parliamentary committees have become a bone of contention between Government and the Opposition benches. The Speaker’s decisions in state assemblies under anti- defection laws have also tainted the office. There is apprehension that some of the unhealthy practices in states might find their way to Parliament. (IPA Service)


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