Sunday, July 27, 2008

The status of Lok Sabha Speaker: some questions

The CPI(M) expelled the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee from the membership of the party in terms of Article XIX Clause 13 of its party constitution. This provision says in exceptional circumstances, party committees in their discretion may resort to summary procedure in expelling members for grave anti-party activities.

Curiously, the party’s website still shows Somnath Chatterjee as one of its 44 members of Lok Sabha (see the section on Elections) He is shown as the 43rd member elected from Bolpur. The Lok Sabha website also shows that he continues to be the CPI(M) MP.

This anomaly is perhaps due to the fact that the Speaker is not supposed to take note of expulsions by the party, unless there is a complaint before him. In this case, as the Speaker himself happens to be the affected MP, will he ask the Lok Sabha secretariat to show him as the “unattached MP” in its records and on its website? Or will he ignore this anomaly as it is of no consequence? No doubt, the CPI(M) has to correct its website, (may be put an asterisk on Chatterjee to show that he has been expelled).

The category “unattached” finds no mention in the Tenth Schedule, and it is an innovation evolved by successive Speakers to categorise those who have been expelled, but were not disqualified in terms of the Tenth schedule to the Constitution. Tenth Schedule seeks to disqualify only those who voluntarily gave up membership of the party or violated party whips in the House. But did the Speaker voluntarily give up the membership of his party before his expulsion? This is an issue on which I have written recently, and has been carried in this issue of Frontline. I have argued that there is a case to seek his disqualification on this ground, citing precedents. Another version of the same article may be read in The Hindu.

The purpose of this post is not only to point out the likely dilemma to be faced by the Speaker (can he categorise himself as unattached, overlooking issues of propriety), but to point out certain inconsistencies that would arise if he continues as the Speaker. Many observers have criticised the CPI(M) for being tyrannical in expelling Chatterjee so soon after the trust vote. Most of today’s newspapers have complimented Chatterjee for taking a courageous stand. But, let us objectively examine some of the issues, without taking sides in this controversy:

1. Why did Chatterjee not resign from the CPI(M) membership using an option given to him under Paragraph 5 of the Tenth Schedule? There are no answers from Chatterjee himself. Should we then presume that he agreed to be subjected to party discipline?

2. By not using that option at the time of election as the Speaker, can he now voluntarily give up his membership of his party in terms of Paragraph 2(1)(a) of the Schedule and claim exemption under Paragraph 5? Chatterjee himself has not explained why he did not resign as Speaker following withdrawal of support by the CPI(M). Did he do so to maintain the impartiality of his office? Although this is one of the plausible inferences, he was legally required to explain this in public.

3. Did he not voluntarily give up membership of the CPI(M) by refusing to resign as Speaker prior to the Confidence Vote? This is the plausible interpretation, as he consistently refused to answer questions from the media on this. He left no one in doubt that he was no longer a member of the party, and therefore, not bound by the party discipline.

4. Was it necessary for him to resign as Speaker before the Confidence Vote and later?

Answer: A. Before the Confidence Vote, it was necessary because had there been a tie during the confidence vote, (which was one of the possible scenarios then) he would have had the duty to cast his casting vote to break the tie. Had he supported the motion, it would have been defection of the highest order, because he was not subjected to the party whip, precisely because he is not, unlike other MPs, bound to vote unless there is a tie. Had he voted against the motion, it would have been against established Parliamentary conventions of having a Speaker from the side of the Government or one of its supporting parties. It would have also meant that the Speaker simply followed the party diktat, though he was not bound to as Speaker. The demand for resignation as Speaker, before the vote, therefore, made sense.

B. Should he resign now?: There is a qualitative difference between a Speaker who was elected, defeating a rival, and a Speaker who was unanimously chosen by all the parties. Under both the circumstances, the Speaker is expected to function impartially. Even if the Speaker is elected, by defeating a rival candidate, the party or parties which put up the rival candidate, adjust to the reality, and do not seriously question the Speaker’s impartiality subsequently, by showing all the respect which he deserves as the Speaker.

But today we are witnessing a new situation. The Speaker was chosen unanimously without a rival candidate at the time of election. Subsequently, his party expelled him, thus declaring lack of confidence in his impartiality. The Speaker may still enjoy the confidence of majority of members of the Lok Sabha, but will he be able to function impartially, especially after his party found it necessary to expel him? Will not the objective of Paragraph 5 of the Schedule be defeated?

WAS THE CONFIDENCE VOTE TAINTED? Having found strong legal reasons for the disqualification/resignation of Speaker, I must confess I did not find the confidence vote a tainted one. Let me explain. There were 23 MPs who had cross-voted: 16 from the Opposition in favour of the trust motion, and 7 from the Congress/SP against the motion. The total tally is 275 for the Government motion, and 256 against it. So, if you exclude 16 from 275 and seven from 256, the result is still 259 for the Government and 249 against it.

Thus assuming that money power played a role in run-up to the trust motion, it did not have any impact on the actual result of the vote. The Tenth Schedule is prospective, and the disqualification of MPs, who defied party whip, starts from the date of the decision of the presiding officer, thus leaving the votes cast by the rebels or their absences valid and legitimate. I would agree that there is a case for invalidating the votes cast by such rebels, or making it difficult for illegitimate absences from the House during such voting. But that is a separate issue.

7 comments:

Gopal Sankaranarayanan said...

I hope your point on the tainted vote is not a serious one and that I can stop you before your piece gets published in the Frontline.
According to your calculations, "if you exclude 16 from 275 and seven from 256, the result is still 259 for the Government and 249 against it".
But, what about these 16 and 7 that you just excluded? Do they vanish into thin air? Or do we add them to the parties they ought to have voted with according to the whip? In which case, it would be 266 FOR (259+7) and 265 AGAINST (249+16). And then, you must of course add the ABSTENTIONS, which were 10 in number and which you wholly forgot to consider. Of these 10, except Mamata Banerjee, all the others were to vote against the Government (4 BJP + 1 SS + 1 JDU + 1 Akali + 1 TDP + 1 MNF) but either abstained or stayed away.
Hence, the FINAL RESULT should have been 267 FOR and 274 AGAINST.

V.Venkatesan said...

We have to consider how they voted -not how they might have voted, if .... According to statistics, there were 23 MPs who cross voted, and there were 10 absentees. The absentees did not cross vote, but there were some absentees among 23 who violated the whip. So, if you assume money played a role in cross voting, and whip-defiance then these 23 become tainted. So I removed these 23, and found that it did not distort the final outcome. Once they are considered tainted, these 23 cannot be added to their respective party strength.

Suresh said...

I am not sure that your interpretation of the expulsion -- that it indicates a lack of confidence in Somnath Chatterjee's impartiality -- is correct. Karat's explanation, from what was reported in the press, was that the expulsion was the result of Somnath Chatterjee refusing to obey a directive of the party, namely, to resign his post as speaker. Karat did not say anything about Somnath's impartiality.

Now why did the CPI(M) issue that directive to Somnath? I think it was Yechury (or was it Karat?) who said something to the effect that the speaker was always a part of the ruling alliance. Hence, once the CPI(M) left the UPA, it no longer made sense for Somnath Chatterjee to continue as speaker and this is why he was asked to step down.

As much as I disagree with the CPI(M)'s action, I have to concede that there is a certain logic to it. Our parliament has not adopted the British conventions whereby election for speaker are not done without any party whip, and where the main parties do not put up candidates against an incumbent speaker in the general election. Also, the speaker, once elected, severs all ties to his party.

I don't think the Indian parliament is going to adopt such conventions anytime soon. But I do think that it unfortunate that the CPI(M) chose to adopt such an overly narrow stance. The party could, by not subjecting Somnath Chatterjee to its directive, have made a broader point about the constitutional role of the speaker and the need to insulate him/her from party politics. This action might have served Indian parliament well in the future, even if it hurt the party itself in the short run. A chance missed, I think.

Gopal Sankaranarayanan said...

Abstaining and being absent are also alleged to be because of money passing hands. Hence, except for Ms.Banerjee, it is 9 Votes Against the motion that were allegedly neutralized.

V.Venkatesan said...

I don't think we can consider absences which did not involve whip violation as tainted, unless there is some additional proof. Even whip violation, I am considering as tainted only for the sake of argument, because the whip violaters are liable to disqualified, and there is an assumption that the violated whip because of bribery (I agree that all whip violators may not be guilty of bribery) The absentees who did not violate whip are not so liable, unless bribery is established, so we cannot take their votes into account to see whether they distorted the final result.

Dilip said...

Dear VV,

As you point out, para 2(1)(b) cannot be applied. As for 2(1)(a), Chatterjee has not, by his 'conduct, actions, contentions or statements' indicated that he has 'voluntarily given up membership of [his] political party'. Before the vote, the CPI(M) publicly maintained that it had left the matter to the speaker to decide for himself, so his failure to resign did not amount to any violation of the party's diktat. The whip issued did not apply to him, so his failure to vote does not constitute a breach of the party's direction for there was no 'direction issued by his party'. He has not spoken to the media, so there are no statements to draw inferences of his contentions from. His name being included in the list of MPs withdrawing support submitted to the President does not lend itself to any inference on the issue of his continuing in the post of speaker.There is absolutely nothing at all on the record to suggest that he did anything from which an inference of his voluntary departure from the party may be implied.

The only basis for drawing such a conclusion appears to have been his expulsion but it seems quite a stretch to conclude from that sole fact that 'he has voluntarily given up his membership of such political party'- for one thing, expulsion from the party was anything but voluntary (but the meaning of the word in this context, as you pointed out from case law, is potentially broader than that) and secondly, the party's reason for its action (that he indulged in activities detrimental to the party) without any objective evidence, publicly available, of the speaker's conduct leading to such a conclusion appears quite insufficient to withstand legal scrutiny. Besides, when violation of the party's direction to vote is specifically included as a cause for losing membership under 2(1)(b), such a far fetched interpretation of 2(1)(a) appears untenable.

ravi srinivas said...

I think his conduct and the circumstances are more important than the rules in deciding this issue.The party did not issue an
order or notice to him to vote against the government.He did not
indicate his position on the issue
and did not do anything that could be construed as an action against
party's interests.Had there been
a tie and had he voted in support
of the govt. that would amount
to taking a position against
party's stand. But there was no
need for him to cast his vote
as the govt. side had enough
numbers to win. So in my view
there is no ground to disqualify
him. Moreover till now he has
not spoken against the party
although party has expelled
him. This itself indicates that
he does not want to politicise
these issues when he remains
as a speaker.His conduct has been
exemplary and he was neutral in
his conduct as speaker. Moreover
had he resigned before trust vote
the proceedings would have been
delayed as a new speaker had to be
elected first before taking up
confidence motion for debate
and voting. That election would
have created an opportunity for
horse trading and cross voting.
Obviously disobeying whips,
abstentions, cross voting
would have resulted in complaints
from both sides when there was no
speaker. This inturn would have
resulted in stalemate or deadlock
over the proceedings.By his conduct
he saved the country from such
unwanted developments.We should be
grateful to him for this. He was elected as a speaker by
consensus.Since then he has been
functioning as an impartial speaker, raising above partisan
interests. Hence to disqualify
him would amount to punishing
him for his good conduct
as speaker.