Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee on Monday ended a standoff with the Opposition, by saying that he would withdraw his decision to refer the “disorderly conduct” of 32 MPs to the Privileges Committee. The move followed an understanding reached by Chatterjee, Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee and Leader of the Opposition LK Advani.
As the controversy ended, the three-month long budget session of the House was adjourned sine die four days before schedule — amid protests by the CPI and without taking up the Women’s Reservation Bill.
As the House assembled at 2 pm after a two-hour adjournment, Mukherjee and Advani urged the Speaker to reconsider his action against the MPs who had defied his pleas when they were protesting against price rise on April 24. They pledged cooperation to him for smooth running of the House.
Chatterjee responded by saying, "I have decided to reconsider the matter and shall withdraw the same. Smooth running of the House is my only concern." The Speaker's action had covered 22 MPs from the BJP, four from Akali Dal, two from Biju Janata Dal, two from Shiv Sena, one from JD(U) and one from BSP, the only non-NDA MP in the lot.
Earlier, when the House met, the Opposition members adopted a Gandhigiri style of protest — they had their fingers on their lips in accordance with a decision of the NDA against the Speaker's action.
Even as the Speaker said it was all over, a question arose in the House: was any apology tendered to him during the meeting to resolve the row. RJD leader Devendra Prasad Yadav wanted to know who had sought apology. The BJP’s VK Malhotra objected. JD(U)'s Prabunath Singh said the Speaker should reveal whether any member has tendered an apology. "There is no question of apology," Chatterjee said, adding that there is no question of retribution.
By a slip of the tongue, Advani addressed Mukherjee, the Leader of the House, as the "Leader of the Opposition". Chatterjee jocularly remarked that Advani's observation was "in anticipation". Advani expressed regret.
Behind the scenes
The understanding with the Speaker was arrived at during an hour-long meeting of all parties in his chamber after he had adjourned the House, minutes after it assembled for the day.
The parleys saw Mukherjee tell the Speaker there was unanimity among members that his dignity had to be protected. Advani said the Opposition was against any dishonour to the chair.
Mukherjee also argued that if the Privileges Committee did not see merit in the Speaker's reference, it could be seen as casting a reflection on him, which had to be avoided. Besides, one view was that under the rules, the Speaker cannot act suo motu on a privileges matter unless he gets a complaint from a member, not the case here.
The Speaker, on his part, felt that he had sent out a signal to the parties to behave in the House, and they had assured him of full cooperation.
During the meeting, no apology was demanded or given. But by offering their cooperation in smooth conduct of the House, the party leaders, in a way, indicated that what has happened should be put behind them. The Speaker did not mince words in referring to his four-year period as presiding officer as among his "worst and most torturous".
BSP's Brajesh Pathak, whose case was referred to the Privileges Committee, said the reference threatened to create the impression that he and the others were being bracketed with MPs involved in the cash-for-query scandal. Shiv Sena's Chandrakant Khaire wondered why they were being punished for raising the price rise issue. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs PK Bansal wanted to know if there was a rule allowing withdrawal of cases referred to the Privileges Committee.
“However, even if technically there is no such rule, the presiding officer can do so by invoking the inherent powers that lie in him by virtue of his office,” said a party leader. Barring the consideration of disqualification petitions under the Anti-Defection Act, the Speaker has the power to alter or modify any decision.