The apex court’s ruling earlier this month to revisit the institution of Speaker and its powers rather than, that of the presiding officer of the legislatures both Parliament and State Assemblies is very much timely. The background of the increasing tendency among various political parties to capture power by all legitimate and illegitimate means which included the misuse of the office of the Speaker.
For over three decades the office of the Speaker has been under controversies for its decisions on the disqualification of MLAs who switch sides for profit or political power thus, undermining democracy. Demand to address this chronic problem has been gaining ground for long.
In specific terms, the Supreme Court has asked Parliament to “have a rethink of whether disqualification petitions ought to be entrusted to a speaker as a quasi-judicial authority when such speaker continues to belong to a political party either de jure or de facto”.
“Parliament may seriously consider amending the Constitution to substitute the speaker of the Lok-Sabha and Legislative Assemblies as arbiter of disputes concerning disqualification which arise under the Tenth Schedule with a permanent tribunal. This tribunal is headed by a retired Supreme Court Judge or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court or some other outside independent mechanism, to ensure that such disputes are decided both swiftly and impartially. This in turn strengthens the provisions incorporated in the 10th Schedule, which are so vital in the proper functioning of democracy,” suggested a bench of Justices R F Nariman, Anirudha Bose and V Ramasubramanian.
The ruling came on a petition filed during Manipur Assembly elections which was held in March 2017. The plea, first filed in the Manipur High Court, had pleaded for a direction from the court to the assembly speaker to decide within a reasonable time period on a petition filed by MLA K Meghachandra, seeking disqualification of Thounaojam Shyamkumar, who had contested and won on a Congress symbol but later defected to BJP and became a state minister.
Total strength of the Assembly in Manipur is 60 and a party has to have minimum of 31 MLAs on its side to stake a claim to form the government. In 2017 assembly elections, the Congress has won 28 seats which was 03 shot of the majority mark. Though the BJP had won 21 MLAs yet it moved to stake claim along with the Naga People’s Front, Nationalist People’s Party and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Congress MLA Shyamkumar extended support to the BJP, helping N Birendra Singh to form a coalition government. Shyamkumar was made a minister of town planning, forest and environment in the BJP led government.
Despite several petitions to the Speaker and an appeal in the Manipur High Court, the issue was not resolved forcing Congress MLAs to move the Supreme Court through an appeal. The Manipur Speaker argued before the highest court, that the issue regarding, whether high courts can direct speakers to decide a disqualification petition, was referred to a constitution bench of the Supreme Court in 2015. This case was of SA Sampath Kumar against Kale Yadaiah. Hence, the Speaker submitted the decision on the Manipur case should be deferred till the constitution bench decided the issue.
However, the three-judge bench rejected the argument holding that the issue was conclusively settled by the top court in a 2007 judgement of Rajendra Singh Rana versus Swami Prasad Maurya. In this case the court had ruled that the High Court can direct Speakers to rule on disqualification petitions if they do not do this within reasonable time. The top court, therefore, has directed the Speaker of the Manipur assembly to rule on the disqualification pleas pending before him within four weeks and also making it clear that, if the Speaker does not take a decision within four weeks, it will be open to any party to apply to the Supreme Court for further relief.
The office of the Speaker was empowered through the Anti Defection Law. Also, referred to as the Tenth Schedule which was added to the Constitution by way of the 52nd (Amendment) Act, 1985. The Law was to check the trend of defection that was called in popular parlance as ‘Culture of Aaya Ram and Gaya Rams’. The statement of object and reasons of the Act said, “The evil of political defections has been a matter of national concern. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundation of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.”
Despite such a law, problem continued to grow over the years as political parties in their pursuit of power began to use and misuse the office of the Speaker. Ideally, the Constitution makers had expected the institution of the Speaker to act impartially, as persons occupying such high offices were expected to rise above their narrow party interests and were supposed to act according to their conscience. With political morality disappearing and power becoming the sole objective of political parties, speakers under the pressure of their respective political parties increasingly began to listen to their party bosses rather than their own conscience. Therefore, the decisions taken by them became a suspect, and resulted in the weakening of the institution and undermining of democracy.
Though there are reports that a discussion is already underway among presiding officers of legislatures on how to secure the Speaker’s “dignity” particularly in matters related to the defection of lawmakers. Two conferences have been held on the issue, still there is an urgent need to take appropriate measures like the one suggested by the apex court to uphold democratic traditions and rule of law.
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Satish Misra was Senior Fellow at ORF. He has been a journalist for many years. He has a PhD in International Affairs from Humboldt University ...Read More +