By Devender Singh Aswal
The state of Uttarakhand, blithely the UK, has been a trend setter in many ways. Young and affable Pushkar Singh Dhami, who lost his seat but led the BJP to victory, has been sworn in as the new CM paving the way for swearing in of ‘to be or not to be’ in other BJP winner states. Yet, the pleasant surprise has been the election of the first woman Speaker in UK. It’s a happy augury that, in male dominated politics, despite all eulogies to ‘matrishakti’ and the rhetoric of ‘gender justice’, the UK Assembly, with barely eight women MLAs out of seventy (5.6%), has elected unanimously Ritu Khanduri, a second time MLA, as the Speaker.
The Speaker is the symbol of the authority and dignity of the legislature and the custodian of the rights and privileges of the members. Ritu Khanduri has solemnly affirmed that she will adhere to the highest standards of parliamentary practices and conventions. The duties of the Speaker are many and challenging. The Speaker has to ensure that the business of the Assembly is conducted smoothly in an orderly manner. This is possible if adequate opportunities are given to the members of all sides, with especial consideration to the opposition. (I recollect once there was a simmering discontent against Speaker Shivraj Patil in the Congress legislature party as it was alleged that he allowed disproportionately more time to the opposition and often yielded to their demands for holding discussions on matters of urgent public importance. Shivraj Patil made it known to the Congress high command that as Speaker he was duty bound to accommodate the opposition to uphold the neutrality of his office and the matter got buried there.) As guardian of the rights and privileges of the House, its Committees and the members, the Speaker must display complete neutrality, impartiality and independence. Once elected to the august office, the Speaker shuns active party politics as (s)he belongs to all sides of the House or to none. He is the voice of the House – their speaker, and has ‘neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak, except as the House is pleased to direct him,’ as Lenthall, the Speaker of the House of Commons said, way back in 1642 when King Charles stormed the House of Commons with a view to arresting five members for treason. The evolution of the office of Speaker is closely interlinked and intertwined with the growth of parliamentary democracy. Its origin is traced to early fourteenth century in the United Kingdom. The office of Speaker is a high constitutional office and the very symbol of a robust representative democracy.
Under our Constitution and the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the legislature, the duties of the Speaker are many and often onerous. The Tenth Schedule to the Constitution confers the power on the Speaker to disqualify a member on ground of defection. As presiding officer, the Speaker has inherent regulatory powers to maintain order and decorum in the House, to give rulings and make observations which ought not to be assailed inside or outside the House, such being the faith in her neutrality. The admissibility or otherwise of all notices given by the members is decided by the Speaker as per rules of procedure and conduct of business of the House. Neutrality and impartiality are the hallmark of this office. Besides, the Speaker has outreach functions to foster wider conversations and engagement of the legislature with ‘the people’ the members are elected to serve. The attributes of an ideal Speaker are many. Palmerston, the British Prime Minister in the nineteenth century asked the Editor of ‘The Times’, London, to list the essential qualifications for speakership. The Editor listed them thus- ‘imperturbable, good temper, tact, patience, and urbanity; a previous legal training-if possible, absence of bitter partisanship in his previous career, the possession of innate gentlemanly feelings which involuntarily command respect and deference; and personal dignity in voice and manner.’ It’s a tall order! However, Speakers like GV Mavalankar, Sardar Hukum Singh, N Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, KS Hedge, Rabi Ray, Shivraj Patil and Somnath Chatterjee, to mention a few, displayed remarkable neutrality, independence and objectivity and commanded immense respect. They hold a hallowed position in parliamentary annals. A Speaker who displays these common qualities in a rare degree rises in the esteem of the parliamentarians and the public. Notably, a hymn in the Yajurveda says, ‘Salutations to the Assembled and salutations to the President’. An Assembly, before starting transaction of business must have its Sabhapati or the Speaker. The Constitution therefore enjoins that every Legislative Assembly shall, as soon as may be, choose two members of the Assembly as Speaker and Deputy Speaker.
Ritu Khanduri, reared and fostered in strict discipline, (being the daughter of Maj General BC Khanduri Retd) and endowed with good temper, urbanity, dignity of voice and bearing, would expectedly display neutrality and non-partisanship in her rulings and decisions, a commitment she held out on assuming the office of the Speaker. When she says, ‘Order, Order’, may there be order in the tempestuous disorderly Assembly. When a member raises ‘a point of order’, her instant ruling and observation and her finesse of conduct would quell any doubt or misgiving. It’s a matter of grave worry that our State Assemblies hold too few sittings and transact still less business due to frequent uproars and politics of obstruction. So much is spent on the conduct of elections, on the establishment of the Assembly and on the salaries and pension of the legislatures, yet the sittings are abysmally few and far between. Debates and discussions are critically essential for the health and vigour of democracy. May the UK Assembly set a robust trend, hold regular sessions and adequate sittings under her Speakership, although it’s a privilege of the Council of Ministers. According to the oft reiterated resolutions of the presiding officers (POs) conferences of India, smaller assemblies should hold a minimum of sixty sittings and bigger assemblies and Parliament hundred sittings in a year with a view to securing accountability of the executive to the legislature- the cornerstone of our republican Constitution. The POs at their conference at Jaipur in 2011 recommended amendment to Articles 85 and 174 so as to make it mandatory. On an average, the Lok Sabha meets for seventy-nine days in a year. But it’s valuable time is lost in uproar and obstructions and forced adjournments. It’s of course for the Union Government which would, given its successful resolve of constructing a new parliament building, hopefully bring out such an amendment as a lasting contribution to the strengthening of the edifice of our parliamentary democracy.
But, back to UK. Congratulations Madam Speaker. Wish you a glorious Speakership. May your rulings and decisions form the basis of new, sound and edifying parliamentary conventions.
(The author is ex-Addl Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a member of the Delhi Bar Council. Views expressed are individual.)
Ritu Khanduri’s photo clicked by Bhumesh Bharti.