The CPM’s decision to expel Somnath Chatterjee has only proved the point the Lok Sabha Speaker isn’t ever tired of repeating — that the Constitutional sanctity and dignity of the office he holds is above individual whims and party diktats.
Chatterjee’s expulsion by the CPM politburo could be a grave personal loss, marking a bitter end to his lifelong association with the party. But beyond that, the Speaker stands vindicated. He remains under law the presiding officer of the Lower House; the Marxist’s unilateralism, perceived by some as a gross breach and contempt of the privileges of Parliament, having no bearing on his continuation in office.
The CPM’s decision to strike at a time Chatterjee faces the daunting task of salvaging Parliament’s standing in the face of the cash-for-vote scam raises many political, ethical and Constitutional questions. “They have sought to subordinate the Parliamentary process and the Speaker’s concomitant obligations to the dictatorship of the CPM politburo,” argued constitutional expert and former additional solicitor general Devendra Dwivedi.
There are many takers for the averment that on being elected Speaker, all incumbents transcended party affiliations to become the “empire and the symbol of the majesty of Parliament.” This factor and Chatterjee’s relentless defence of the sovereignty of the House he presides over makes doubly imperative his continuation in office to get at the bottom of the scandal that has undermined Parliament’s legitimacy in the popular esteem.
Many past parliamentarians and holders of high Constitutional offices recognise Chatterjee’s role in driving home the frequently forgotten message that “institutions are permanent, not incumbents.” In former Governor Bhishma Narain Singh’s view, the Marxist veteran’s conduct as Speaker has been in the same league as that of GV Mavalankar, independent India’s first holder of the high office and his successor M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar’s.
The comparison isn’t the least out of place. As presiding officer of the House, Chatterjee never shied away from being counted in a minority of one in his defence of Parliament’s space in the separation of powers under the Constitutional scheme between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. “Only a man of his intellectual sophistication and proven integrity can handle the grave challenges to our parliamentary democracy,” Dwivedi said. “He should continue in office now to restore Parliament’s dignity by bringing to book all those who have brought upon the august institution the unprecedented public opprobrium.”
Parliament represents the popular will that is sovereign. It cannot afford to be in the dock in the people’s court. Regardless of what his party thinks of him, barrister Chatterjee must stand up to the merchants of sleaze.