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A Critical Analysis of the Office of the Speaker in India

Advocate, Supreme Court
India follows the parliamentary system of government in which both theExecutive and Legislative powers are combine to form a Government. The parliamentary form of democracy can rightly be described asa  “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”The speaker plays a vital role in advancing the cause of democracy by maintaining a balance between good government and maximum individual freedom. In India, adequate powers are vested with the office of the Speaker through the Constitution of the land, rules and procedure and conduct of business in Lok Sabha and the respective State Assembly and through practices and conventions in order to help and assure the smooth conduct of parliamentary proceedings while protecting the independence and neutrality of the office. The Speaker of the House is a Constitutional post as enshrined in Article 93 of our Constitution. It provides for the position of a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker to be chosen among the members already elected in the Lower House of the Parliament of India i.e. The Lok Sabha.Similarly, Article 178 provides for the post of a Speaker and Deputy Speaker for their respective State Legislatures i.e. The Vidhan Sabha. The office of the Speaker plays a focal and decisive role in our democracy. The Speaker represents the authority of the house and symbolizes the dignity and power of the house over which he is presiding. The Speaker is responsible for regulating the business of the house. Simplicitor, he is a guardian of the rights and privileges of the house, its committees and its members. The Speakers responsibility is to ensure that the decorum of the house is maintained at all times and that there is smooth conducting of business. Although, the Speaker is generally chosen from the ruling party, he is expected to be bipartisan in his approach and conduct of proceedings of the house, the Speaker should conduct himself in a manner beyond reproach. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru perfectly articulated the role of the Speaker saying, “The Speaker represents the house. He/She represents the dignity of the house, the freedom of the house, and because the house represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes symbol if the nations freedom and liberty. A free position and should be occupied always by persons of outstanding ability and impartiality.”
Many of the countries in today’s democratic setup provide for the position of a Speaker, the roles, duties and rights therein. In England, the Speaker of the House of Commons chairs debates in the Commons chamber. The holder of this office is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament. During debates they keep order and call MPs to speak. The system of India and the UK is similar in nature. Securing the neutrality of the Speaker is a question that experts in India have been grappling with for 70-plus years. In Britain, the promise of office for many terms is used to ensure the Speaker’s impartiality. By convention, political parties usually do not field a candidate against the Speaker at the time of general elections. And the Speaker can continue in office, until deciding otherwise. By convention, the Speaker also gives up the membership of his/her political party. This helps in securing the impartiality of the Speaker to a certain level.
In the United States, the role of the Speaker is similar to that of India and the UK. However, an interesting fact is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives need not necessarily be an elected member of the House, however, that is yet to happen. Most of the Commonwealth nations have a Speaker who is the authority of the Lower House of the Parliament including Australia and Canada. Our immediate and formerly monarchical countries of Nepal and Bhutan have also adopted a parliamentary democracy system of governance with the provision for a Speaker of the House.
             In India, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha was Shri. Ganesh VasudevMavalankar hailing from Ahmedabad. However, the first lady Speaker was only elected in 2009 when Smt. Meira Kumar from the UPA Government was elected for the post in the Lok Sabha. Although the general rule is that the Speaker is always elected from the ruling party. There have been three exceptions wherein the Speaker was elected from other parties namely GMC Balyogi, Manohar Joshi and Somnath Chatterjee. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha comes in at number 6 in the Indian order of precedence along with the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India. The Speakers of the respective State Legislatures are ranked in at number 14 in the Indian order of precedence along with the Hon’ble Chief Justice of the Hon’ble High Courts. Dr. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy is the only Speaker of the Lok Sabha who till date has resigned from office. He further holds the distinction of being the only Speaker who till date has assumed the office of the President of India.
    One of the notable incidents of a Speaker of the House where the interest of the nation at large was placed before the interest and command of the party was in the year 2008 when the then Speaker Shri. Somnath Chatterjee was expelled by his party the CPM for not following the instructions of the party. The CPM had withdrawn support to the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government on July 9 in protest against the nuclear deal. Somnath Chatterjee, was the speaker of the Lok Sabha after Congress-led UPA government came to power in 2004. However, the CPM wanted him to resign from the speakers post before the special session. Even party stalwart Jyoti Basu hinted that he should quit. However, Somnath Chatterjee decided to continue as Speaker against his party leaderships wishes. He was of the view that he was above party politics as the Lok Sabha speaker.The special session of the Lok Sabha took place with Somnath Chatterjee presiding over it. The CPM, after a meeting expelled Somnath Chatterjee just a day after the special session came to an end for seriously compromising the position of the party. A press release from the party said, The politburo of the CPM has unanimously decided to expel Somnath Chatterjee from the membership of the party with immediate effect. This action has been taken under Article XIX, clause 13 of the Party Constitution for seriously compromising the position of the party.
    A stark controversy which the Parliament and the Speaker has been subject to recently is the classification of the Aadhaar Bill as a Money Bill by the Speaker. Upon classification as a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha has no power to amend or reject a Money Bill. While it was being passed the ruling NDA Government has a majority in the Lok Sabha but the same could not be said about the Rajya Sabha. However, this bill upon being classified as a Money Bill upended their power and was passed. The petition filed before the Supreme Court challenging this was rejected. In K.S. Puttaswamy the Apex Court in a five judge bench judgment held the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 was rightly passed as a “Money Bill”. By a majority, it was held that it was indeed a Money Bill while the dissenting judgment Chandrachud J. held to the contrary. The Hon’ble Judge in his dissenting judgment said that there is a need of the Rajya Sabha to check the power of the Lok Sabha which was being overridden by it being classified as a Money Bill and stressed on the significance of a Bicameral Legislature.

The Speaker of the House of Commons is today expected to be bipartisan. However, till the mid 17th Century, they were partial in their approach and were in fact also viewed as agents of the Crown. One of the pioneers to change the outlook was William Lenthals famous defiance of Charles I in 1642. It was the first time that a Speaker of the House of Commons had declared his allegiance to the Parliament than to the Monarch. Charles I had entered the House of Commons supported by 400 armed men, in an attempt to arrest five members whom he accused of treason. When Charles asked Lenthall where the five were, Lenthall famously replied "I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me" No monarch has set foot in the House of Commons since. Arthur Onslow another Speaker in the House of Commons has been the longest serving Speaker holding the office for 33 years. He was also the third member of his family to hold the office. He is credited with modernising the office of the Speaker. He said, “some regard shewn to me from many of every denomination and they had reason to believe, I should be respectful and impartial to all.
The Constitution of India contains identical provisions relating to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha and their counterparts in the state legislative assemblies. It lays down only the main duties and responsibilities of the speaker. These may be broadly stated as under :
(1) To preside over the House, whenever he is present in the House, excepting when a resolution for his removal from office is under consideration.
(2) To adjourn the House when there is no quorum.
(3) To permit a member who cannot adequately express himself in Hindi or English or the official language of the state, to address the House in his mother tongue.
(4) To exercise a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes.
(5) To determine whether a Money Bill is a Money Bill, and to certify a Money Bill.
The detailed rules and procedures of the Speakers of the Legislative Assembly are laid down in their respective rules and procedure under Article 208 of the Constitution. However, none of the rules, regulations and procedures passed by the respective Assembly can be ultra vires. It has to be in accordance with the law of the land. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the respective State Legislatures also have an administrative role, the Lok Sabha Secretariat and the Secretariat of the State Legislature functions directly under the aegis and direction the Speaker of the House. He is bestowed with authority over the staff, precinct and security of the Secretariat of the House.
The Deputy Speaker is elected along with the Speaker and is his subordinate. He is the vice presiding officer of the Lok Sabha or the respective State Legislature. His main function and/or role is to fill in for the position of the Speaker in his absence caused by leave, death, sickness or resignation. He assumes the chair of the Speaker and performs the duty as and when required.
             In the 73 years of our independence, the Lok Sabha has had 17 Speakers and the State Legislature has had many more. It goes without saying that there has been controversies, misuse and abuse of powers, criticism and court cases. The Committee of Presiding Officers, headed by V. S. Page, Chairman of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, in its report submitted to the Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies in India, held in October 1968. The committee, inter alia stated: “The principal duty of the Speaker is to regulate the proceedings of the House and to enable it to deliberate on and decide the various matters coming before it. Thus, in considering the various notices or points raised before him or adjournment of the sitting or placing matters before the House and the like, the Speaker should always bear this in mind and, where in doubt, he should act in favour of giving an opportunity to the House to express itself. The Speaker should not so conceive his duties or interpret his powers as to act independent of the House, or to override its authority or to nullify its decisions. The Speaker is a part of the House, drawing his powers from the House, and in the ultimate analysis a servant of the House, not its master. One of the question that definitely arises is whether the Speaker is as impartial and apolitical as he should be. The Speaker functions as the highest authority, as it were. However, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has in KihotoHollahanheld that the Speaker is subject to judicial review. This case was decided in the backdrop of the 10th Schedule of the Constitution which deals with anti-defection. Till date numerous occasions have arisen wherein the Speaker has had to adjudicate on the elected representatives shifting their political parties. More recently, the office of the Speaker of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra has been embroiled in controversy regarding pro government stances when he is in fact supposed to remain a neutral person. In KeishamMeghachandra Singhthe Hon’ble Supreme Court in a three judge bench headed by Justice R.F. Nariman held that an independent tribunal ought to be appointed instead of the Speaker to determine the fate of the MLA or MP who switched parties as the Speaker himself also is a member of a political party. It further urged the Parliament to reconsider strengthening certain provisions of the 10th Schedule of the Constitution.
    In Borobabu Singhthe apex Court held, “It is our constitutional duty which requires us to make this order, to uphold the majesty of law and justify the confidence of the people, that no one in this country is above the law and governance is not of men but of the ‘rule of law’. It is unfortunate that this action has to be taken against a person who happens to be the Speaker of a Legislative Assembly, but that does not permit us to apply the law differently to him when he has wilfully and contumaciously driven the Court to this course. We must remind ourselves that the ‘rule of law’ permits no one to claim to be above the law and it means — ‘be you ever so high the law is above you’. It was said long back : ‘to seek to be wiser than the laws, is forbidden by the law’.” The ground for the Petition arose when the Speaker of Manipur assembly disqualified an MLA. The Supreme Court aside the order which the Speaker refused to comply with. He ignored persuasion and constitutional advice, leaving the court with no option but to summon him in contempt. Still, the Speaker refused to appear before the Hon’ble Court.
    Justice Dipak Misra, the former Chief Justice of India in NabamRebiaobserved the Speaker's position and role in disqualification proceedings. “The Speaker, when he functions as a tribunal, has the jurisdiction to pass adverse orders. It is, therefore, required that his conduct should not only be impartial but such impartiality should be perceptible. It should be beyond reproach.” He further added, “It would be anathema to the concept of constitutional adjudication if the Speaker is allowed to initiate proceedings under the Tenth Schedule after intention to remove him from his office is moved.“
                  Another point of contention is the frequent disruptions in the proceedings of the house, which greatly reduce time for the members to discuss and deliberate on issues which are key to India. The duty of the Speaker to handle proceedings in a manner which allows the ruling party to carry out its functions without shutting out the opposition members is vital to the calibrated functioning of the Parliament and the State Legislature. The coffers of the taxpayers should not be wasted in staged walkouts and disruptions but rather in debates, discussions and deliberation.
                 The current Speaker of the Lok Sabha however in a rare spectacle has been receiving praise from not only members of the ruling party but also from opposition leaders for his conducting of proceedings in the House. He has brought about tweaks in the proceedings of the House, which have found favour across party lines. Up to the last Parliament, the Speaker would move onto the next agenda after a Ministers reply. The opposition MPs would shout their displeasure at the reply but the agenda would have moved on. Leaving things in limbo. Mr. Om Birla has assured the members of getting a chance to seek clarification after the ministers response, which has garnered inter party appreciation. This has been put to the practical test when Home Minister Amit Shah, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari were replying to debates related to their ministries. This has led in interruptions and disruptions during the Ministers reply reducing and clarity of communication coming across and house members getting better and clear information.
               The office of the Speaker is a post provided for in the Constitution of India be it for the Lok Sabha or the respective Vidhan Sabha. It is one of significant importance especially in the needs and problems of the house. He is responsible for conducting the business of the house in an effective and efficient manner. He is a spokesperson of the house. The principal requirement of the apolitical handling of business by the Speaker rising beyond party ranks and in the best interests of the citizens and the members of the house is of paramount importance. One that we hope and pray is imbibed into the functioning of every Speaker of the House, present and future.


Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi