Herald View: The importance of being Om Birla

Short of their removal from office, there is no effective mechanism to regulate the conduct of Speakers

PM Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Kiren Rijiju escort Om Birla to the chair after his election (photo: PTI)
PM Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Kiren Rijiju escort Om Birla to the chair after his election (photo: PTI)

Herald View

He appears soft-spoken and goes about his business with assurance and impunity. Om Birla, re-elected as a BJP member of Parliament from Kota, Rajasthan, did well by his party in his previous stint as Speaker, and has been rewarded with a renomination in the newly constituted 18th Lok Sabha for playing a willing accomplice to the ruling party’s shenanigans in his first term.

Short of their removal from office — the conditions and procedure for which are detailed in Article 94 of the Constitution of India — there is no effective mechanism to regulate the conduct of Speakers. As ex officio chairman of the Rules Committee, the Speaker’s word is effectively the law in the Lok Sabha.

No confidence motions against the government can be moved by the Opposition unless the Speaker allows it. No debate can take place unless he allows it. No ‘division’ or voting can take place without his permission. No bill can be moved without his permission, but the Speaker has the discretion to allow the government to introduce bills at any time of its choosing — spring them on the last day of a session or insist on voting on the same day the bills are introduced. Mr Birla was guilty on all those counts.

The Speaker presides over the Business Advisory Committee of the House, which finalises the daily agenda when the House is in session. The Speaker also has discretionary powers to change the agenda, adjourn the session ahead of schedule and stonewall demands that contentious bills be sent for scrutiny to parliamentary standing committees. Mr Birla’s previous tenure as Speaker saw the lowest number of bills sent to parliamentary committees for scrutiny.

New laws have been passed on his watch in the Lok Sabha with practically no debate, often by voice vote amid protests and pandemonium. The infamous farm bills were passed without any deliberation; the telecom bill was allowed to be introduced on the last day of the session, even though the day’s agenda made no reference to it; the women’s reservation bill was sprung on the House, without any consultation and without giving the Opposition time to study it.

The Speaker also has the absolute power to suspend and expel members from the House and Mr Birla has the dubious distinction of expelling as many as 97 opposition members on the same day. He also exercised his power to delete questions asked by the suspended MPs and ordered substantial parts of speeches to be expunged.

On his watch again, the government-owned Sansad TV channel, which broadcasts the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament, repeatedly censored the Opposition. From the standpoint of the ruling party, Mr Birla’s credentials are impeccable, and with its attenuated hold on power, it will value his services even more. Mr Birla is unlikely to disappoint.

In his measured address, newly appointed Leader of the Opposition Rahul Gandhi congratulated the re-elected Speaker, but he also said: “This House represents the voice of the people of India… Of course, the government has political power, but the Opposition also represents the voice of the people. […] We’d like the House to function well, [but] co-operation happens on the basis of trust, [and] it is very important that the voice of the Opposition is allowed to be represented in this House.

"[…] Speaker sir, the question is not how efficiently the House is run, the question is how much India’s voice is allowed to be heard in this House. [Silencing] the voice of the Opposition is a non-democratic idea and this election has shown that the people of India expect the Opposition to defend the Constitution, the Samvidhan of this country and we are confident that by allowing the Opposition to speak, by allowing us to represent the people of India, you will do your duty of defending the Constitution of India.”

The statesmanlike register of Rahul Gandhi’s message obviously belies the Opposition’s real-world expectations. The Opposition might press for rules to ensure a more level playing field in the House, but it will know better than to expect it. What recourse, then? A white paper for the people on Mr Birla’s record as Speaker in the 17th Lok Sabha may be a good start. Here’s a preview of the highlights, courtesy PRS India:

The 17th Lok Sabha can claim for itself the following distinctions:

•• Fewest sittings among all full-term Lok Sabhas

•• No deputy speaker (which by convention goes to the Opposition) for the first time in the history of independent India

•• MPs suspended on 206 instances; highest number of opposition MPs ever suspended

•• More than 50 per cent bills passed within two weeks of introduction without adequate discussion

•• 35 per cent bills passed with less than an hour of discussion

•• Less than 20 per cent bills referred to parliamentary committees

•• Less than 10 per cent bills passed with recorded voting

The Opposition shouldn’t expect any better this time round. It will also hopefully know better than to rely on Parliament to echo the voice of the people. It’ll have to engage with the people more directly, in their villages and on the streets.

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