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.
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