ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Independence of the Speaker

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The recent judgment of the Supreme Court in the Karnataka assembly disqualification case has expressed grave concern about the increasing partisan role in the functioning of the Speaker. In contrast, the evolution of parliamentary democracy reached a new milestone in the country of its birth, England. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons from 2009 to 2019, acted with such independence and autonomy that was unheard of in our parliamentary system, at least in the last few decades.

In a parliamentary democracy, it is imperative that the legislature functions effectively and independently rather than being controlled by the government of the day. Herein lies the paradox. Theoretically, the government is answerable to Parliament, but, in practice, the government, which has a comfortable majority, controls Parliament through its sheer strength of numbers. This happened in the days of Congress’s hegemony, particularly during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and again is a reality today, in a time of the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Recent happenings in England include the unanimous judgment of a 11-judge bench of its Supreme Court, which held that advice tendered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the queen to prorogue the House of Commons was unlawful, and the government losing majority on the issue of Brexit without a deal on more than one occasion was instructive. Thus, the question automatically crops up as to how the Speaker of the House of Commons acted so impartially and, in contrast, the successive Speakers of our Lok Sabha have always been bailing out the government of the day.

After the Tenth Schedule was inserted in our Constitution by way of the 52nd constitutional amendment in 1985, the Speaker was vested with the adjudicatory power in any case concerning defection. The vesting of adjudicatory power in the Speaker, far from enhancing the dignity of their office, has, in actual practice, made them more partisan. The apprehension articulated in the minority judgment of the constitution bench of the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutional validity of the Tenth Schedule in Kihoto Hollohan v Zachillhu (1992), that “The Speaker being an authority within the House and his tenure being dependent on the will of the majority therein, likelihood of suspicion of bias could not be ruled out” has unfortunately proved out to be prophetic. Since the Speaker is now vested with adjudicatory power, they must always act with detachment and be seen to be non-partisan all the time.

The only salutary example in the last few decades is the tenure of Somnath Chatterjee, the Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha. There came a time when the duty of Chatterjee as a Speaker of the House and as a constitutional functionary conflicted with the dictate of his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on the issue of the Indo–US Nuclear Treaty. But, Chatterjee rose to the occasion and ignored the dictate of his party and performed his constitutional duty with utmost distinction and neutrality for which he was expelled from his party, which effectively marked the end of his political career after he ceased to be a Speaker in 2009. The neutrality shown by Chatterjee becomes more remarkable in view of almost no precedent in which the Speaker acted completely independent of his party line by shedding his political affiliation.

In contrast to the exemplary role performed by Chatterjee, the role of the Speaker of the last Lok Sabha, particularly in respect of certifying any bill as a money bill as per the convenience of the ruling party left much to be desired.

Parliament is a forum for debate and discussion. The legislature is not only a legislative body, but is also a deliberative body. Without parliamentary approval, the government cannot pass the budget. The policies of the government should be subjected to close and minute scrutiny by the members of Parliament. This requires sturdy independence and non-partisan behaviours on the part of the Speaker. It is this neutrality which alone can inspire confidence in the office of the Speaker and impart dignity to the functioning of the august body. The opposition parties must have the confidence that they will receive a fair hearing from the Speaker at all times. The confidence in the impartiality of the Speaker is an indispensable condition for the successful working of Parliament or state legislature.

As per the English convention, the Speaker, after being elected, cuts off his association with his party and seeks re-election as an independent candidate, whereas in our constitutional system, the Speaker continues to be the member of the party from which he is elected. In fact, Article 100 of the Constitution envisages that the Speaker can even cast vote in the event of equality of votes. When the Constitution was framed, it was inconceivable that the office of the Speaker would be degraded. But, in the course of time, the dignity of the Speaker suffered erosion as a result of which their equidistance came under suspicion.

Parliament can discharge its role of a watchdog of government policies and hold the government of the day to account for its policies only when its members, particularly those belonging to the opposition groups, are given the opportunity to raise issues, and that can be ensured only through the independent functioning of the Speaker.

The first condition for the proper functioning of Parliament is to ensure order and that can be done only when the Speaker is seen to be above party lines at all times. If the minority groups have the confidence that the presiding officer will not allow the ruling dispensation to ride roughshod over them, the legislative business of the House can be conducted in a smooth manner and its decorum can be maintained. For achieving this, the first imperative is to amend the Constitution by providing for the severance of the association of the Speaker with the party from which they are elected. Since the framers opted for the Westminster model, the convention evolved in the United Kingdom ought to be emulated.

Vijay Kumar

New Delhi

Updated On : 22nd Nov, 2019

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