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Somnath and his grumpy boys

The Speaker's penchant for sermons ? that some consider "headmasterly" ? hasn't helped him conduct the House better.

india Updated: Aug 10, 2006 03:50 IST

In June 2004, BJP-NDA members had stood up to applaud Somnath Chatterjee's unanimous election as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Two years down the line, they sat on a dharna, accusing him of being unfair and insensitive — a charge Chatterjee's supporters contest with facts.

They point out that he's already allowed five adjournment motions in 24 months (against five admitted during the NDA regime), 78 calling attentions and three dozen discussions under different rules.

Why then is the BJP unhappy with Chatterjee? And how does the veteran Marxist, a recipient of the Best Parliamentarian Award, compare with his predecessors? 

On the face of it, the BJP's grouse against Chatterjee stems from the clash between the former's "right" to raise issues and the Speaker's insistence on ensuring proceedings as per the rules and the sense of the House.

The BJP's run-in with Chatterjee began in 2005 when he dubbed the Supreme Court's directive to the Jharkhand assembly for ascertaining division of numbers in the House as an infringement of the legislature's rights. BJP-ruled states boycotted a meeting of presiding officers he convened to discuss the issue.

Since then, their relations have had more downs than ups — so much so that in Parliament's Budget session, they accused him of being a "tanashah (dictator)" and even threatened to bring a no-trust motion against him — something Chatterjee would rather face than give in to the BJP's muscle-flexing.

The Speaker's penchant for sermons — that some consider "headmasterly" — hasn't helped him conduct the House better. But what upsets the BJP more is his proclivity for taking positions that robs them of the sole occupancy of the Opposition space in the House. For instance, Chatterjee's concern over the leak of the Pathak report and his call for a probe took the sting out of the BJP campaign on the issue.

But there is perhaps a deeper reason for the Opposition's conflict with the Chair. Ideologically and numerically, the 14th Lok Sabha is a fragmented House. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is less than 10 seats; the UPA and the NDA are a conglomeration loosely held together; and there are differences between the UPA and its Left partners on several key issues. The end result: a House that is constantly in a state of flux in which the UPA allies compete with the BJP-NDA for the Opposition space. In this scramble for a non-government podium, a Speaker from the Left accentuates the BJP's sense of denial.

Like the present Lok Sabha, the three preceding Houses also had coalition regimes. A strong Speaker at that time could have set the norms for managing the contradictions in the House more in accordance with the tradition of debate. But that opportunity was lost.

As presiding officers, GMC Balayogi and Manohar Joshi were more prone to adjourn proceedings in the face of a ruckus. The conflict has now arisen because Chatterjee has a classical approach to conducting proceedings. His style has few takers among the saffron stock. And sometimes even his own partymen feel that he alternates his gameplan between tough talking and going overboard in accommodating the Opposition.