July 23, 2008

Speaker of the Lok Sabha as Party Member

Lok Sabha and the Speaker, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has taken the extreme decision of expelling Mr. Somnath Chatterjee from the primary membership of the party.

Mr. Prakash Karat, General Secretary, CPIM

The decision has understandably led to strong reactions from various sections of the polity. with many political parties expressing strong feelings against the expulsion citing his good work as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

While most people view his expulsion in the light of his position as Speaker, it must be recognised that Mr. Chatterjee is actually wearing two hats and there is a clear distinction between his position as the Speaker and his position as a member of the political party to which he belongs.

Mr. Chatterjee is a duly elected to the constitutional position of Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Clearly, therefore, regardless of his party affiliation, the party cannot remove him as the Speaker, for that depends upon either him or the body of parliamentarians that elected him.

Mr. Chatterjee is a veteran and highly respected Parliamentarian with a distinguished record of over 40 years standing. During his tenure as the Speaker , many believe that he has enhanced the dignity of the Chair of the Speaker. It is a different matter that despite trying very hard, he has not succeeded in bringing the weight of his seniority and authority to bear on the MPs of the present Lok Sabha who have made it a habit to show their unruly and undisciplined side at every opportunity. In any case, there is a strong consensus in favor of his continuing as the Speaker.

A political party can, however, ask a member to cease to hold any office occupied by the member if it decides that it is justified in doing so. When the party decided to withdraw support to the Govt., it took the view, rightly or not, that Mr. Chatterjee being first and foremost a member of the political party should also quit as Speaker. It is true that the Speaker is above political affiliation when performing his Constitutional duties. Moreover, the position relates to the Legislative Body which is distinct from the Executive. That in itself was a good enough reason for the Party to let him continue as the Speaker. The withdrawal of support of the Party was against the Govt. and the party ought to have distinguished that withdrawal from the fulfilment of the obligations of the Office of the Speaker of a Legislative body by one of its members.

However, the party took a view also considering the value of his vote in any upcoming Trust Vote and mounted pressure on him to resign as Speaker. Mr. Chatterjee, whose ego was already hurt because the Party did not show him the courtesy of consulting him before including his name in the list submitted to the President, did not oblige. On the other hand, he gave a rather frivolous reasoning for not resigning, namely, that he did not want to be seen voting together with the BJP. To say the least, this stand completely lacks in logic and it is surprising that such a senior and seasoned politician and parliamentarian even thought it fit to advance such a reason. Did he mean to say, that just because the Left parties see themselves as sworn enemies of BJP, they should give up fundamental positions on political issues because BJP also happens to have the same position for its own reasons? Taking this argument to the extreme, suppose that the Centre places West Bengal (perhaps along with a BJP ruled State) under President's Rule under Article 356 and if the BJP decides to bring a no-confidence motion in Parliament, would his Party have to oppose such a motion just because BJP is supporting it? It is quite absurd to propose such a flimsy excuse for not resigning. He also suggested that he was elected as Speaker unanimously. However, once he is elected as Speaker by the House, the fact that he also happened to be elected unanimously does not lend any more weight to his position as Speaker or to his decision not to resign. Such explanations, even in the eyes of objective observers were seen as reflecting his desire to simply stick on to the high position. Coupled with the fact that he refused to bow to the party’s express wishes on a crtitical issue, the eventual failure to defeat the UPA in the Trust Vote clearly seem to have led to his expulsion.

In so far as the action taken by the Party is in accordance with the constitution of the Party to which a member is bound, the expulsion is purely an internal affair of the party and the party would surely know all the implications of its actions. Many have tried to ascribe it to the personal egos of some, but really speaking in a Party with so much emphasis on party solidarity and unquestioned submission to the party discipline, such actions are not ruled out. While many feel that such harsh action should not have been taken against such a senior member, there is another side to the coin too. After all, being one of the senior most members of the Party, Somnath Chatterjee more than anyone else, ought to have known and anticipated the results of his failure to follow the Party's express wishes, also considering the surrounding circumstances.

On the other hand, despite the action taken by his Party, at this stage he would do well not to give up his position as the Speaker nor is it even necessary or desirable to do so. As seen during the Trust Vote on the 22nd July 2008, it is essential to have a person of his stature as the Speaker to give the proceedings in the House at least a semblance of credibility and a modicum of discipline to maintain the dignity of this august Institution, which has taken a severe beating in the last few years.