The 17th Lok Sabha scripted a “unanimous” new beginning on Wednesday last when a relative newcomer Sangh Parivar’s grassroot leader 57-year-old battle-hardened two-term Kota MP and three-term MLA Om Birla rode high on optimism into history books, as India’s Speaker.
A surprise pick for the post traditionally held by seniors and considered close to Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister-BJP President Shah the new Speaker known for his simplicity made plain that he was no pushover, meant business and would not hesitate to crack the whip. “I don’t think Parliament is the place for sloganeering, showing placards or coming to the Well. There is a road where they can go and demonstrate. Whatever people want to say, allegations they have, attack the Government they can but can’t come to the gallery and do all this,” he said. His tough message ran loud and clear: Put Lok Sabha back on the rails.
With Government-Opposition ties already rock bottom which marred the functioning of the previous two Lok Sabhas’ Birla has an arduous task ahead. Realizing this, he added: I am very clear Parliament is a temple of democracy….it functions by Parliamentary rules, all Parties should maintain decorum….the Government has to be more responsible and answerable since they have such a large majority.”
It is a moot point whether he will be able to restore the Lok Sabha’s long lost glory, notwithstanding his intensions. Sadly over the decades Parliament has got drowned in the cacophony of petty foggers, one-upmanship and conmanship. Will he be able to ensure Parliament functions through debate, discussion and consensus? Or will it be held hostage by pandemonium?
More so as the challenges confronting the nation have increased manifold. The country is today in the throes of economic stagnation, increasing social tensions. In addition, there are forces within and without eager to destabilise India and disrupt its unity and integrity. This calls for reasoned debate.
Yet, till date even a one-man Opposition army has prevented discussion by holding the House to ransom. Many members have made it a habit of rushing into the Well of the House. All spew sheer contempt. Bringing things to such a pass that pursuit of power, pelf and patronage is replacing law making. The figures tell all. Parliament spends less than 10% of time on legislative matters and the most on trivialities.
Moreover, we take great pride in calling ourselves the world’s largest democracy. Yet most of us forget that Parliamentary democracy provides for a civilized form of Government based on discussion, debate and consensus. Alas, ruthless politics has taken over and discussions and debates have largely lost their meaning. Numbers alone matter and have become the sole criteria of success.
In this milieu, the Speaker’s job has become all the more important and demanding. However, few appreciate his key role without whom, according to Erskine May, “the House has no Constitutional existence.”
Alas, over like the years Parties have used Constitutional posts as lollipops to reward or oblige Party workers, the Speakership is no exception. Think. Although the Lok Sabha Rules of Procedure are largely based on the Westminster model, the all-important issue of having an independent Speaker was overlooked.
Under the Westminster system of Parliamentary democracy in Britain, an MP resigns from the Party on his election as Speaker. Moreover, the Speaker is re-elected unopposed to the House of Commons in subsequent elections. Sadly, few follow the premise that a Speaker is expected to be above Party politics, not a plaything of the Party.
As a former Lok Sabha Speaker confided, “We are elected on Party tickets with Party funds how can we claim independence? Moreover, even if we resign on becoming the Speaker, we would still have to go back to the same Party for sponsorship for the next election.”
Consequently, most Speakers have been Party members, especially after laying down Office or prior to it. From second Speaker Ayyangar who became Bihar Governor on expiry of his term to GS Dhillon and Manohar Joshi who switched roles from Ministers to Speakers, Balram Jhakar never concealed his identity as a Congressman, Rabi Ray lived up to his Janata Party’s expectation and Shivraj Patil who post Speakership, lost the re-election, but was nominated by Congress to the Rajya Sabha and anointed Home Minister. Sadly, today eyebrows are not even raised.
Undeniably, to conduct the House business smoothly stern discipline is paramount. Discussions should be made more meaningful and focused through a strict time schedule. Today, time management has become a joke. Most Speakers are too indulgent, allowing Party leaders to speak endlessly, as though they are speaking at a political rally.
Hence crucial legislative business meriting in-depth debate is rushed through with only a cursory glance. There is no such thing as first, second and third readings of bills as during Parliament’s golden era under Nehru. Unlike the past, demands for grants of various Ministries and Departments, running into lakhs of crores rupees are guillotined without any discussion because time is wasted on non-issues.
Clearly, Speaker Birla has to walk a tight rope. Ensure the Opposition has its say even as the Government has its way. For starters he needs to take a leaf out of the West’s book to save time, whereby the microphone is switched off as soon as a MP finishes his allotted time. Winston Churchill once told his party MPs that MPs should endeavour to make only one point in their speeches. It is the privilege of Prime Ministers alone to make two points!
True, there is no magic remedy. The process will be slow and long. Nevertheless, a meaningful beginning would be made if Speaker Birla puts an end to brazen rowdyism. The Chair needs to ensure that the House is not held to ransom through a ‘gang up’ of MPs determined to disrupt its smooth functioning. Any member rushing into the House’s Well should automatically stand suspended for a week.
What next? Plainly it is time to rectify the flaws. Rules have to be drastically changed to put Parliament back on track and ensure no one can holds the House to ransom. We have to be clear: Are we for democracy as a civilized form of Government or have we degenerated into a “democracy” of devils and fixers? Remember, there can be no place in a 21st-century Parliament for people upholding19th-century prejudices.
With 267 new MPs it remains to be seen if our jan sevaks adopt an attitude of cooperation or confrontation and adhere to rules. They must desist from reducing our temple of democracy in to a monument like Taj Mahal or Qutab Minar. We know what pigeons do to them.
As Prime Minister Modi gets down to bringing change in governance, he must recognize the Speaker’s key role and help him serve democracy impartially by adopting the British maxim: “Once Speaker always a Speaker”
In sum, Birla needs to heed Indira Gandhi’s words: “Parliament is a bulwark of democracy… It also has a heavy task of keeping an image that will gain it the faith and respect of the people. Because, if that is lost, then I don’t know what could happen later.” That faith and respect needs to be restored and built by the new Speaker through a new chapter. Any takers? —INFA