Less than week before Manmohan Singh goes to Parliament to save his government, the suspense over who will preside over the test continues.
Somnath Chatterjee showed no intention of stepping down as Speaker on Wednesday; there were in fact, hints that if pushed beyond a point, he may quit both the Lok Sabha and the CPM.
Appearing on a TV channel, Chatterjee was non-committal: “Whatever I have had to say, I have said. I stand by my decision. I am requesting that the media may not speculate. This is an important session. Give me a little time.”
Asked specifically if he intended to be in the chair for the July 22 trust vote, the Speaker was enigmatic: “That is the million dollar question. Please go on speculating.”
As the impression that he intended to stay sunk deeper, the Congress backed Chatterjee gently in Delhi and strongly in Kolkata.
“Once elected, the Speaker rises above party affiliation,” spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan said in response to reports that Chatterjee was under pressure to resign. “The controversy has set a potentially dangerous precedent of the presiding officer being asked to quit before any... no-trust vote. This could be a precursor to destabilization of parliamentary democracy.”
Bengal Congress chief Manas Bhuiyan was openly exultant: “Somnath Chatterjee has taken a courageous stand to protest the (CPM) move to vote along with the BJP,” PTI quoted him as saying. “We congratulate Chatterjee...”
The BJP gave its own spin to the crisis: “If reports about his (Chatterjee’s) unwillingness to vote with our party are true, it only shows that he is no longer non-partisan,” spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said.
In the CPM, there was growing frustration with the Speaker. Kerala MP Varkala Radhakrishnan launched the first open attack on him since the controversy began. “His argument (that he does not want to vote with BJP) does not hold water. He didn’t have a problem when BJP supported him for Speaker,” Radhakrishnan, himself a former Kerala assembly speaker, was quoted by PTI as saying. “This is childish.”
In Kolkata, CPM state secretary Biman Bose avoided the press. But party sources said he rang general secretary Prakash Karat to tell him that Bengal Transport Minister Subhas Chakraborty has been told to explain why he had questioned the party line and defended Chatterjee.
Chakraborty, a maverick leader known to be close to Jyoti Basu, however, refused to withdraw the statement. "Why should I withdraw it?" he demanded on Wednesday. It is learnt that Karat has been very upset with Chakraborty since he came out in Chatterjee's defence on Monday.
In Delhi, Karat's senior comrade Sitaram Yechury issued a clarification on reports that he had opposed putting Chatterjee's name on the list of CPM MPs withdrawing support.
"I said the Speaker's name should be included as he was elected as CPM candidate. (But) there should have been an asterisk denoting that he is Lok Sabha Speaker, as is the normal parliamentary practice," Yechury said in a statement.