Sunday, June 21, 2009

The neutrality of the Speaker

The new Speaker,Meira Kumar, has given a spate of interviews to the media ever since she assumed office. Among other things, she has mentioned that the Constitution does not stipulate that the Speakers should resign from their parties at the time of election as Speaker. Well, the 10th Schedule to the Constitution does give the option to the Speaker to do so. The word 'stipulate' means to require as a condition. In the 10th Schedule, the option is implied, as Paragraph 5 of the Schedule makes it clear. But if you read Paragraph 5 carefully, it is actually a provision exempting the Speaker from paragraph 2(a) of the Schedule which lays down that a Member voluntarily giving up membership of a political party would stand disqualified as Member. Therefore, Paragraph 5 clearly expects the Speaker to voluntarily quit the party membership on election as Speaker, and avail the benefit of exemption from disqualification guaranteed by Paragraph 5. If one reads Paragraph 5 simply as giving an option to the Speaker, then the Paragraph 5 would become redundant, and that could not have been the objective of Parliament which added this Schedule to the Constitution.

In a sense, Paragraph 5 of the 10th Schedule, even as it aims at curbing defection, gives meaning and substance to the convention that the Speakers must be politically neutral while performing duties as the Speaker. Successive Speakers since 1985, when this Schedule was added to the Constitution, ignored Paragraph 5 as if it did not matter. The former Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, during the thanks giving speech in Lok Sabha in 2004 specifically mentioned that he would be lenient to the Members belonging to the Left.(The link to his speech strangely is not active after his term is over!) He said on June 4, 2004: "As a Leftist, as one belonging to the Left Party, friends on my left may be rest assured that I have a natural leaning towards the left."

Meira Kumar is also reported to have defended the contentious Women's Reservation Bill in Parliament, and has expressed the hope that it would be passed during her term. Mail Today has questioned her view as inconsistent with the neutrality of her office. The former Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee was accused by Amar singh of Samajwadi Party of influencing the party's decision to bail out the UPA Government on the contentious Indo-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008 - an allegation which Chatterjee later denied. But the fact remains that Chatterjee did not hide his political views even before his term as Speaker was formally over. He questioned the CPI(M)'s decision to withdraw support to the UPA Government on the nuclear issue. Therefore, despite his denial, Amar Singh's claim seems plausible.

Should Speakers conceal their views on contentious political matters? Well,prudence would require that in order to appear as a neutral Chairperson while conducting the House, she does not appear to have already made up her mind on a contentious issue, to be resolved by the House. Otherwise, she might be accused of lobbying for support or opposition to a measure to be debated in the House, when the House alone independently could decide the matter either way. If at all, she plays a role only if she is expected to exercise her casting vote in the case of equality of votes, under Article 100. Even here, she is expected as per convention, to vote for status quo, rather than for change, notwithstanding whether her vote would be in favour of her party or not. Thus if there is an equality of votes (I just imagine, I am sure there will not be any, given the broad support to the WRB)on the WRB, the Speaker would be expected to reject the Bill, because the Bill aims to change the current representation in the Parliament and state legislatures.

In the U.K., the House of Commons is also set to elect a new Speaker to fill the vacancy created by the last Speaker who resigned on the expenses row. I was surprised to find while reading this article and the blog post that the issue of neutrality of Speaker, apart from other things, is also an issue before the Members.
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