Saturday, May 8, 2021

Speaker’s power

The Supreme Court asking the Parliament to reconsider if the Speaker should continue to decide disqualification petitions of legislators under the existing Anti-Defection law indicate the need for a rethink. The SC has also suggested for an independent mechanism to decide such cases, besides fixing a time limit of three months. The need for such reconsideration has emanated from the fractured nature of mandates leading to coalition politics, where disagreements arise among the alliance partners. The greed for retaining power with misuse of money and muscle makes governments an unseemly spectacle, jeopardising political stability in different parts of the country. That political stability is paramount has never been in doubt, more so when it is cobbled up on the basis of shared beliefs among the alliance partners. At one point of time, some senior politicians about three decades back predicted that coalition politics is going to stay for at least next few decades before some party gets a majority and rule the country. It was also predicted that single party rule will be a thing of the past, but the rise of right wing politics was nowhere in sight at that time. While the issue concerns their jurisdiction, charges of misuse of authority have always put presiding officers under a cloud. This was mainly for the reason when the politics of ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ took roots in the Indian polity. It is important to note that Kesari Nath Tripathi as the UP Speaker proved to be controversial after the BSP split in 2003. Somnath Chatterjee faced flak from his own party, the CPM, after he refused to quit as Speaker on the Indo-US civil nuclear deal during UPA-I. The absence of a whip allowed him to continue, though he was expelled by the party. The interpretation of the law has also been challenged, when in the absence of a formal resignation, defection gets inferred by conduct, through ‘anti-party’ activities. Besides these cases, the Anti-Defection law was interpreted in a different way suiting the power greed of the ruling parties in different states of the country. Parallel to this phenomenon, it has been debated time and again, how the Speaker can decide the petitions on the issue of disqualification of legislators, who voted or defected to the ruling party, which gained power through horse-trading. The disqualification of the legislators should lead to fall of the government but that did not happen even as late as last year in Karnataka, Goa or any other state. Previously, too, it was suggested that the President or the Governor should decide on the advice of the Election Commission. It should be ensured that the assignment does not become another sinecure for the judiciary. The court interprets and upholds the Constitution while the legislature enacts laws. The decision of the Speaker on disqualification is already subject to judicial review. While the SC does ask for introspection, the legislature should not abdicate its responsibility. Parliament represents the people and it should have a self-correcting mechanism. What better affirmation of it than the Preamble getting recited at agitations. Presiding officers should conform to the highest standards of conduct in a democratic system. Given the dynamics of politics, it is not always possible, but as Munshi Premchand said in his story Panch Parmeshwar, the responsibility of the Chair should melt away all the bias. But the piquant situation does not have a solution at this stage. The previous judgments on the issue of dismissal of the governments in different states by the central government were in themselves a subject of discussion in legal circles. Now, the issue under debate is that once the legislators have been disqualified should go back to the people for re-election and the decision on their status should be decided by the people and not the elected representatives themselves. The responsibility should vest in the chair without any bias.