Thursday, July 31, 2008

Speaker’s status: A response to criticism

My post on this has provoked a vibrant debate.
Let me respond to some major criticisms in this post.

1. The CPI(M)’s explanation of its withdrawal can be read here and here. The withdrawal did not mean that the party just wanted a trust vote. When it withdrew support, it clearly said publicly that it had no confidence in the Manmohan Singh Government, and through withdrawal it was marking a complete break with UPA. The trust vote demand was secondary, though important.

2. I don’t think the party failed to convey to Somnath its expectation directly and publicly. Directly it did convey through a number of informal channels. Publicly, the party avoided expressing the demand explicitly because the Speaker’s post is a Constitutional post, and therefore, short of removal, he can only resign. Publicly demanding him to resign would have caused him embarrassment, so the party tried informal channels to convey its request. By saying ‘it is for him to decide’, the party left the decision to him on when to quit as a matter of courtesy.

It is naïve to assume that the party included his name first, and sensing adverse public opinion, it refrained from issuing a whip to him. A whip could not have been issued to him at all because of Article 100 (1) which says the Speaker shall not vote in the first instance. So a whip, which is a common direction to all party MPs, could not have been issued to him. The fact that he was expelled for "seriously compromising the position of the party", shows that the party did expect him to resign, and conveyed this to him. How does it matter whether it is conveyed privately or publicly, for the purpose of determining whether he compromised the party's position?

3. I agree convention is not just a string of precedents. All parties must agree, and there ought to be a justification for it. That the Speaker belongs to the ruling party or coalition is certainly a convention, to which all parties had agreed over the period. I cannot recall any departure from this at any time before or after Independence. Now, the justification is obvious. Most of the House’s business is Government-initiated.

The Speaker, no doubt, has to be impartial in the conduct of the proceedings. But it does not mean that House can risk an adversarial Speaker, who creates hurdles at every stage, obstructs Government’s legislative agenda tacitly or explicitly because of his sympathies with the Opposition. In the case of equality of votes, envisaged in Article 100(1), can a Government risk an Opposition Speaker who can be expected to cause its downfall? What more justification one would require for a convention? More than a convention, it is a compulsion created by Article 100(1) to have a Speaker who supports the survival of the Government.

Even now, the Opposition threatens to move a no-confidence motion against the Government. During the voting, a tie is again a possibility; can the Government risk having a Speaker who belongs to the Opposition? No doubt, Government is itself not aggrieved about this, but I am only raising a theoretical possibility, to suggest that there is a justification for this convention.

4 comments:

Dilip said...

The inference that an MP has ‘voluntarily’ relinquished his membership of his party can only be drawn from his/her public conduct, not private. The most obvious reason is simply that it is impossible for any impartial outside observer to reliably determine what transpires in private discussions. If private deliberations are brought into a courtroom, it comes down to the MP’s word against the party’s and it is impossible to know who said what to whom or what the understanding/promise was at the time. There have been various versions in the media about what was asked of the Speaker and what he was willing to offer. None of this is reliable enough to withstand legal scrutiny.

When informal efforts fail, formal methods are adopted – is that not how matters generally work? If someone owes me money, I might try to first call the person, then talk to him/her in his/her office, and if all of that fails, then I first send a formal letter asking him/her to comply followed by a legal notice. In court, the fact that I claim to have talked to the person in private or made phone calls is likely to carry much less weight than my having clear documented evidence in the form of a letter of my efforts to recover the money. Politics surely works the same way. Parties try to get their members to do as expected by privately sounding them out and if that fails, then they are publicly pressured to fall in line. If that fails as well, they are subject to punitive measures. Why should it be any different here?

If the party approached him through informal channels that failed to work, it had every right to then approach him formally and publicly with a letter asking him to fall in line – his failure to respond as required might have been construed as defiance of the party’s wish and a reasonable case potentially made out that even absent resignation, such conduct amounted to a ‘voluntary’ departure from the party. It may have caused him embarrassment (embarrassment though is a matter of perception: is the speaker being embarrassed by the party’s fiat or the party embarrassed to have to issue such a directive to a long-standing and senior member?) but though unfortunate, that is no ground for dilution of the procedural requirements under the law. Casual suggestions in private, rumor mongering, insinuations and encouraging media speculation are no substitute to a straightforward letter of intent.

Discounting all the media hype, as far as I know, there are only three authoritative facts here – the withdrawal letter, the CPI(M)’s statement that the issue of resignation is for the speaker to decide and a two-line letter of expulsion from the party. The strongest conclusion one can categorically draw from these is that the party may have suggested to the Speaker to resign, nothing more. The more fanciful theories rely upon filling up the blanks between these recorded facts with a variety of inferences drawn from hints, rumors, surmise and conjecture.

Yes, he was dismissed for ‘seriously compromising the position of the party’. But that cryptic statement in itself is open to a variety of interpretations aside from the one you posit and certainly insufficient to establish any case regarding the individual MP’s conduct. Indeed, a variety of theories have already been put forward in the media. Ego-clashes between Karat and Chatterjee, pique owing to Chatterjee’s criticism of CPI(M) MPs during the debate, pressure tactic to force him to resign next month after the Hiren Mukherjee memorial lecture and perhaps others have all been claimed. It has been said that Chatterjee did promise to resign (which is why the CPI(M) ‘left’ the matter to him as courtesy) but only after the vote of confidence but failed to do so immediately thereafter leading to his expulsion. Any of these will fit those three facts that we are aware of. What is required for legal purposes is a sequence of documented events that unequivocally establish that the Speaker’s conduct was at variance with the party line, not a single phrase summarizing the Central committee’s perception of the individual’s conduct – being a party to the dispute, its own final conclusion is inadequate for legal action by any standard.

The convention of having a Speaker from the ruling party evolved when there were single party governments. The history of coalition governments in India has been relatively short, so too much cannot be made of the fact that nothing to the contrary has so far happened. Is the convention justified in the current scenario? No doubt there are advantages to it as you point out but the opposite is also true – if a vote is likely to be very close, having a speaker from the opposition benches would raise the head count of government supporters by one which may be significant. Especially if the person happens to be someone whose individual conduct is beyond reproach (as perhaps Chatterjee’s is), there is no reason to do otherwise. Besides, if at all someone is aggrieved by such an arrangement, it ought to be the government of the day, not a party which just happened to leave government. The CPI(M) wanting the speaker to resign cannot be justified in the name of convention.

ravi srinivas said...

'During the voting, a tie is again a possibility; can the Government risk having a Speaker who belongs to the Opposition?'

But if the speaker is removed through no-confidence motion against him/her, it would be
in a dillemma as it had to lose
one vote by proposing a member
from its side for that post.
The opposition would gain one
vote. I understand that by convention Speaker votes
for status-quo in case of a tie.
So govt. side can take a risk when
it is confident that speaker will
conduct the proceedings without any
bias and will also abide by the convention of voting for status quo
in case of tie.Of course as a matter of precaution both sides
will have Plan Bs on hand.

V.Venkatesan said...

I am glad that Dilip agrees implicitly that the present Speaker is not protected by Para 5 of Tenth Schedule. The only question is whether he attracts Para 2(1)(a), that is, voluntary giving up of membership of the party, where we seem to disagree. Now, the party says Somnath seriously compromised the position of the party, before his expulsion. Does it not follow that seriously compromising the position of the party amounts to voluntarily giving up membership? If you read the newspapers and watched the channels, right from the withdrawal of support, it is clear what the CPI(M) wanted from the Speaker, and why the Speaker hesitated to resign. This inference is reasonable, and inference is sufficient for 2(1)(a). If the Speaker thought otherwise, why did he not explain it himself and clear the air?

Dilip ignores the fact that apart from the withdrawal letter, there is one more material fact: the party distancing itself completely from the UPA (the links I provided). It is in this context, the Speaker ought to have reviewed his position. It is not just inclusion of his name in the list given to President. That he was unwilling to resign as Speaker in this context can be easily inferred, and this was untenable because of the convention.

Conventions are part of the Constitutions. If they are to be changed, then all the parties must agree to it at least implicitly, and there ought to be a justification for it. I don't think Dilip's view of a change in the convention because of the coalition era is aggreeable to all parties.

If the justification is that a neutral Speaker can justifiably support the government, even though he might belong to Opposition, it is still not a sufficient justification. The present Speaker has certainly distanced himself from his party, that is why the Congress has no problem in his continuance.[This is one more reason, why he attracts Paragraph 2(1)(a)]. But can this aberration be considered a convention? Are not the UPA and the Speaker violating the Convention and thereby the Constitution?

The Speaker might have conducted the trust vote session admirably, and won the hearts of middle class; but that is no reason why he and UPA should blatantly violate the Constitution.

Sekhar said...

Venkatesan seems to be getting carried away a bit: "blatantly violate the Constitution" seems unsupported by the facts.

Being ignorant of the law, I would appreciate clarification on one point. My impression was that expulsion by a party for reasons other than defying a whip could not be grounds for disqualification as MP or MLA. If my impression is correct, I don't see any basis for disqualifying Somnath unless the Confidence Vote was tied and he voted with the government.

Also, I am concerned that there is little discussion of what would have happened if Somnath had resigned prior to July 21. Would the Deputy Speaker have run the proceedings? That makes no sense since he is from the Opposition. Or, would Parliament have spent some time to elect a new Speaker, who would then have set up the schedule for a debate, etc?

It seems to me that Karat, by asking Somnath to resign ahead of July 21, was looking to promote Parliamentary chaos more than party discipline. Perhaps the Speaker "won the hearts of the middle class" because he served the nation well.