Om Birla is now the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. It should come as no surprise that a Member of Parliament of just two-term vintage now presides over proceedings of the house of the people. Convention has it that seasoned parliamentarians are made Speakers.
But that wasn’t always so. One of the most seasoned parliamentarians, when he became Prime Minister chose a relative newbie to the post. It Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister chose the late GMC Balayogi, who was a second term MP like the incumbent.
On the chapter on the Speaker in the book Constitutional Questions in India, the erudite constitutional expert AG Noorani reminds us that Speakers not so long ago have sullied the august office. He mentions how Balaram Jakhar in the 1980s showed “unconcealed ambition for office as union minister” even as he was presiding over the House and of a Shivraj Patil, whose ruling on June 1, 1993 on the Janata Dal split “was a disgrace”.
Sumitra Mahajan, as speaker of the 16th Lok Sabha, was often perceived as being rather overtly biased as well.
So would Speaker Om Birla restore the prestige of the constitutional position he has quite unexpected been elected too, and unanimously at that?
According to reports, Birla was a “conscientious parliamentarian”, with 86 per cent average attendance and equally impressive productivity as well. As an MP he asked 671 questions, participated in 163 debates and introduced six private members’ bills in the 16th Lok Sabha alone. Not an inconsequential record by any standard. What these numbers indicate is that we have a hardworking Speaker. Does that make Birla an impartial presiding officer?
The hope that the Speaker will be impartial is real, given the brute majority enjoyed by the government and the emaciated state of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, but also that it be precedent-setting. Thus, the hope is that when the Prime Minister says, “I also assure you that your order will prevail and you must be tough even if anyone from our side (treasury benches) crosses the limit,” it will indeed be followed in spirit and respected in reality. And when Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary “urged [Birla] to be impartial and give enough time to the opposition to raise issues of public interest,” it is not just about being genial as the Speaker took his chair, but about a need in a democracy.
The man who was instrumental in using his considerable political equity to fortify democracy in the country, Jawaharlal Nehru, said way back in 1948: “The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House, the freedom of the House and because the House represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes the symbol of the nation’s freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that that should be honoured position, a free position and found be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality.”
The onus on upholding that might rest on shoulders of Birla, but for insulating the institution of the presiding officer of the Lok Sabha for the long term needs some conventions to be set. For example, the Lok Sabha could decide that the person elected to the august office should resign from the political party she belongs to. And the person “designated” Speaker should be elected to the Lok Sabha unopposed.
These proposals are not new, but now are urgent.
An edited version was published here.