Speaking truth to power

As the presiding officer of the legislature, the Speaker enjoys all power that is integral to the conduct of business and regulation of the proceedings of the House. In a parliamentary democracy, he or she is the sole arbiter in interpreting the rules of procedure of the House; the ruling is final, and beyond any legal challenge. Even so, the recent orders of suspension of almost all the members of the principal opposition party in the legislatures of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are extraordinary, raising serious questions relating to freedom and fairness on the part of the Speakers. In Gujarat, opposition members had sought to raise the issue of the assault on Dalits by cow vigilantes when the issue for discussion was ratification of the Goods and Services Tax Bill. In Tamil Nadu, members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were evicted en masse when they protested against expunging a remark by M.K. Stalin. It is nobody’s case that opposition MLAs in either State were exemplary in their behaviour. But the wholesale eviction and suspension gave rise to the spectacle of empty opposition benches, and robbed important debates in the House of the contribution of the opposition members. Speakers who prevent opposition members from raising important issues invariably end up drawing unflattering attention to their own actions.

For presiding officers to take away the right of members to express themselves is to undermine the very foundation of parliamentary institutions. True, the government must have its way in transacting business, but not before the opposition is allowed to have its say. Vast powers have been vested in the office of the Speaker to strengthen the democratic institutions of the parliamentary system, and not to stifle dissent or protest in the House. The Speaker is powerful insofar as he or she uses powers in the interest of free and fair speech, in enabling the legislature to debate and decide on issues of public importance. Thwarting the voice of members of the opposition is not the Speaker's remit, except when they make the conduct of business in the House impossible. Indeed, the spirit of parliamentary democracy demands that the Chair enable the opposition, no matter how insignificant or limited its bench strength, to intervene and to question. But unlike in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha so far, the eviction or suspension of opposition members is becoming disturbingly routine in State Assemblies. Such intolerance is evident from State governments run by both regional and national parties. The increasingly partisan Speaker is a symbol of the crisis in India’s legislatures.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 3:03:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Speaking-truth-to-power/article14587199.ece

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