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"We have to give importance to people’s issues"

Monday 5 June 2006, by PRASAD*K.V.

Somnath Chatterjeeon the experiences of his two years as Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

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V.V. Krishnan
Somnath Chatterjee: "We are losing [our] sense of humour and there is hardly any laughter. It is nice to hear some laughter in the House."

His second year in office has been more eventful and challenging than the first. A year that saw the Lok Sabha taking the unprecedented decision of disqualifying 10 of its members following the "cash-for-questions" scandal; the former Lok Sabha Secretary-General reprimanded for breach of privilege; and the controversy over the Office-of-Profit issue.

After being in Parliament for nearly four decades, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee emphasises that there is no alternative to parliamentary democracy and feels something should be done so that the people, particularly the younger generation, do not get disillusioned with Parliament.

Excerpts from an interaction:

Last year, you had expressed concern over the functioning of Parliament and this time the situation seems to have turned from bad to worse. How do we get people to bring the requisite moral integrity to the job in democratic institutions?

I agree. Unfortunately, it is true that things have not been improving. I have been trying in my own humble way. I have tried to do as much as I can by holding meetings before every session and hold daily meetings with the leaders of political parties every day. My preference for Calling Attention motion is because Minister’s reply is available. As many as 75 Calling Attention motions were taken up during the seven sessions the 14th Lok Sabha held. The last House had only 60 Calling Attention motions in 5 years.

I have been saying whatever methods are available utilise them. Please raise issues of importance like girl child, population, sports, women’s struggle, and I persuade members to give notices. From the Chair I suggest that I will allow half-an-hour discussions. What have I done, that there is a feeling that I am supposedly partisan?

This frequent stalling of Parliament is giving the institution a bad name. Your remedy?

I attach the greatest importance to this institution. We represent the people and when they cast their vote, they have a hope, aspiration that our representatives will try to do something and look after us not only in the constituency but also in Parliament, which is the mirror of the country.

Five months after I took over I went to the Vice-President [who is the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha] and suggested we call a meeting of leaders and hear from them how to run the House. Every party was represented and everyone promised full cooperation. I want nothing else but to proceed according to the rules. Sometimes there is spontaneous repartee but we are losing [our] sense of humour and there is hardly any laughter. It is nice to hear some laughter in the House.

The situation is such that repercussions of political confrontation would be felt inside the House. Are the leaders still largely in control of their own MPs?

I know the situation. Political confrontation would have its repercussion in the House but if goes on continuously... and I hope my friends do not misunderstand, if they really want they can control. I have been appealing to all of them you let me know what you want me to do.

Parliament has a much bigger role than sitting from 11 [a.m.] to 6 [p.m.] and pass only laws, we have to give importance to people’s issues. That is why I have set up Parliamentary forum [on various issues], more members are taking part in the lecture series, and [the] library has been opened. This is all intended to bring people closer so that they feel this is the institution in the country, which can solve our problems. Of course [the] Government of the day will have their programme to implement and will bring laws, you criticise the bad laws.

Once I told an Opposition leader that if you project views in Parliament the country would know what issues you are raising, instead of the House not functioning. It gives such a bad message. That is why many [people] are not thinking of politics as a part of permissible functioning in life.

It appears that there is a breakdown of dialogue between the Opposition and the Government. Can you, as Speaker, facilitate better communication?

There are meetings every day. Dialogue is not with me, it is taking place between them every day. I will try more. Recently when someone under the Right to Information wanted details of members’ assets statement, I consulted both the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. I do not consider that it is the Speaker’s House. Speaker is the first servant of the House of the members. I repeatedly say, it is your House, your Parliament. Naturally it is a matter of great agony if [my action] is called Dadagiri or Hitlershahi. Please let me know what has to be done, how do you want the Chair to perform?

When an adjournment motion on influx of outsiders into the country came from the Opposition, I told the Government I will admit and they were extremely upset. Mr. Pranab Mukherjee said how could you do it. I said I have decided, you have to respond. Ultimately there was a good debate and the Government, too, said it could clarify its position.

After all the Government has to survive on its own strength and I do not consider it is the job of the Speaker to save the Government. My job is to see that the House functions according to the Constitutional norms, rules and regulations and whatever permissible under rules. I have told my friends in the Opposition that subject to rules and time constraint, I will allow and I have bent the rules like the other day. I could have rejected the adjournment motion [moved by L.K. Advani] as it was 15 minutes late and under the rule is should have be taken up the next day even then I had the prerogative and allowed it. In violation of rules I allowed BJP Deputy Leader Vijay Kumar Malhotra to move the Calling Attention motion.

What about the controversy over the privilege motion against the former Lok Sabha Secretary-General moved on the last day of the budget session?

I did not know the contents of the [Privilege Committee] report [recommending that Subhash C. Kashyap be admonished] till it was submitted and on the day it was presented I was not even in Delhi. If the Government wanted to bring a motion, under the rules I have to permit it. The House may reject it or accept it. I cannot say I will not allow Government business. I had said I have nothing to do with the motion and would be quite happy if it [resolution admonishing Mr. Kashyap] is taken up in the next session. The majority view was it should be on the last day. Why am I being blamed?

Why do you think the Bharatiya Janata Party is doing this?

I hope they have faith in that and cooperate with the Chair. If there is anything amiss, I will rectify. I have respect for the Opposition, for I spent [a] lot of time there and know their agony, problems and rights. Last time when the Opposition decided to keep away from the Standing Committees [following disagreement with the Government], I requested Mr. L.K. Advani saying democracy cannot function without [an] Opposition. I am happy they joined the Committees.

Now unfortunately, I have got resignations from four [BJP] members from the Privilege Committee. I will not accept the resignation and [have] written to them saying let us all work together.

You have always appealed to the media to be constructive in projecting the work of Parliament. Is there a change in the situation?

We want to learn from the members of the media. Do criticise. We know the criticism would be bona fide. I am unhappy since media has a glorious role and sometimes commerce, sometimes competitive journalism, is there. But it was because of media some wrongdoings of members of Parliament were known and we took action. Although it [expulsions] was held against me, I did nothing except taking consent of leaders to appoint a Committee that went into it [cash-for-questions]. They made a report in which I had no hand and it was approved by the House and I did not even cast a vote. Why am I being singled out? There is no greater institution than the Lok Sabha, let us work together.

See online : The Hindu

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