It’s rare for a two-term MP to be elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The outgoing Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, for instance, had been elected seven times to the Lok Sabha before she was elected Speaker. It is even more rare for a relatively young MP below the age of 60 to be elected to the chair.
The choice of Om Birla, therefore, took most observers by surprise. Not only was Birla a back bencher in the last Lok Sabha and kept a low profile, he is barely 56 years old and has a long stint in politics ahead of him.
But what tipped the scale in his favour was his RSS background and the faith of BJP President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Birla, who has been active in the RSS since he was in school in Kota, has apparently known both of them for long. And in fact when the CBI was turning the heat on Amit Shah for his alleged involvement in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, it was Birla who provided him with shelter.
Amit Shah, it is said, stayed in Birla’s farmhouse in Rawatbhata. Birla looked after him and hosted him in his luxurious farmhouse at Kala Pahar village. A seasoned politician, having thrice been an elected MLA in Rajasthan before getting elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 2014, his long association with the party and the Sangh worked in his favour.
Also the fact that he wears his affiliation to the Sangh as a badge of honour. His profile mentions that he had led a group of volunteers to Ayodhya during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and that he was imprisoned in Uttar Pradesh during the time following demolition of the Babri mosque.
While in Delhi, as a first-term MP, Birla is said to have come close to M Venkiah Naidu, now the Vice President of India, and it is said that Naidu also helped him in getting the coveted position. BJP MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy is said to be a close friend both of them together had formed a group of young BJP MPs in Parliament.
The first few weeks of the Lok Sabha session has helped allay some of the suspicion and apprehension that the opposition may have harboured at his election, which was unopposed because the opposition did not have the strength in the House to stop his election. But the new Speaker appeared in earnest and told the media, “All parties have reposed faith in me, so it will be my duty to keep their faith.” “Everyone has the right to express themselves, the government has to be more responsible since they have such a large majority. They should answer all questions.”
It has already been noticed that the new Speaker has generously allowed a large number of first-time MPs to deliver their maiden speech in the House during the first session itself, which will last till July 26. Reports suggested that Birla himself had to wait for a full year before making his maiden speech and that he did not want the 250 first-time MPs elected this time to wait that long.
In another pleasant surprise, Birla has been firm with even ministers. When HRD minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘allowed’ NCP member Supriya Sule to speak, Birla firmly told him that he should not usurp the role of the Speaker. Similarly, when first-time MP and Bhojpuri actor and singer from Gorakhpur, Ravi Kishen, began to sing in the Lok Sabha, he was told that he could sing later.
He has also ensured the Question Hour and the Zero Hour to be utilised to the satisfaction of the MPs. Frowning upon religious slogans in the House, when treasury benches heckled opposition leaders with slogans of ‘ Jai Shri Ram’ when they were taking oath, Birla declared that the House was not meant for sloganeering, placards and unruly demonstrations. The House should be run on the basis of rules, he asserted. He also extended the Zero Hour by half an hour to allow an opposition MP to have his say.
He has clearly made a good first impression on the MPs till now.
Birla was just 17 years old when he was elected president of the students’ association at the Government Senior Secondary School at Gumanpura in Kota. He continued to take part in student politics in the Rajasthan College of Commerce at Kota.
Hailing from a modest family and the son of a shopkeeper, he carved out a niche for himself in the Bharatiya Yuva Morcha, BJP’s youth wing and rose to be its national vice president.
People from Kota remember him fondly. An old friend Janardan Gupta recalls that Birla has lost only one election when he was still in college and that too by a solitary vote. "But that made him wiser and Omji never looked back. He learnt the art of contesting an election in his college days and later very next year after losing the college election, he became president of the college union," recalls Gupta.
His one-time trusted political secretary Mahendra Gautam fell out with him and wrote against him to the anti corruption bureau ( ACB) and submitted a long list of documents alleging that Birla had amassed disproportionate wealth. But the probe was closed with the report that it was a motivated complaint.
Senior journalist, Narayan Bareth, who worked in Kota and saw his rise in politics, recalls Birla as a good organiser and a popular leader in Kota.
But people who have known him claim that Birla laments his inability to speak forcefully in public. The ever-smiling Speaker of the Lok Sabha, they said, disarmingly admits being a poor speaker. But a fast learner Birla, they are equally certain, will spring a surprise.