Speaking out of Turn

How the increasingly partisan role of the speaker compromises democracy

01 July 2018
On 19 May, the speaker of the Karnataka legislative assembly conducted an oath taking ceremony for the newly-elected ministers.
shailendra bhojak / pti
On 19 May, the speaker of the Karnataka legislative assembly conducted an oath taking ceremony for the newly-elected ministers.
shailendra bhojak / pti

The Karnataka assembly election that took place this May was replete with high drama and plot twists. Following a hung assembly in which the Bharatiya Janata Party was the single largest party, but the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) made it past the halfway mark in a post-election alliance, Karnataka governor Vajubhai Vala was faced with a tough choice regarding whom to invite to form a government. Although the BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa was first sworn in as chief minister, the Supreme Court mandated a floor test for the party to prove its majority in the house through a vote of confidence within 48 hours. With one day left to go for the test, Vala stoked controversy by appointing a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh member and former BJP minister KG Bopaiah to the post of pro-tem speaker of the Karnataka Assembly. Under normal circumstances, the pro-tem speaker—usually the MLA who has had the longest term, which Bopaiah did not—does nothing more than swear in newly-elected members of the house and help them elect a speaker. However, the floor test has far greater consequences, and is usually conducted under the supervision of the speaker. In this instance, however, the Supreme Court had directed the pro-tem speaker to take on this function, and thus, his role became crucial. The controversy was prompted by the fact that when Bopaiah was the speaker in 2010, he had used his position to try and help Yeddyurappa sail through a no-confidence motion in very controversial circumstances. His partisanship had then drawn ire from the Supreme Court, which stated that the speaker had violated “the concept of a fair hearing.”

Many felt that by inviting the BJP to form a government in the first instance, even though they did not have the numbers, the governor had declared open season on political defections and horse trading. In such an event, the role of the speaker could shift the political fortunes of a party. As it turned out, having failed to cobble up the numbers, Yeddyurappa resigned before the floor test took place.

In accordance with the Westminster form for parliamentary democracy, the presiding officer, called the speaker in India—holds an important position in ensuring the functioning of the parliament and state legislature. A speaker assumes office after a house is constituted and tends to be a member of the ruling party—although there have been notable exceptions. There are no specific recommendations in the constitution regarding how the speaker is to be elected, but usually informal discussion between leaders of the parties represented in the house takes place before votes are cast.

Among the broader administrative responsibilities that fall upon the office are maintaining order in the house, choosing the questions that will be introduced for debate and deciding who will speak. The speaker does not herself intervene in debates—and in fact cannot, by convention, do so—which means that her role is one of an impartial arbiter of the rules of parliament. The reality, though, has belied this constitutional expectation. Speakers have, over the years, become more partisan in their functioning. This stems from the more discretionary powers the presiding officer wields, such as the ability to disqualify members of the legislature under the anti-defection provisions of the Constitution of India.

The Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, or the anti-defection law, as it is more popularly known, was introduced in 1985, to prevent legislators from crossing over to other parties under the lure of securing an office. According to the schedule, any member who leaves a political party or takes a public position against her party can be understood to have “voluntarily given up their membership.” In other words, the speaker has the power to disqualify an individual political dissident from the legislature. If two-thirds of a party wish to merge with another party, however, neither the breakaway faction nor the remaining members of the party may be disqualified. The legislator who is disqualified has to stand for fresh elections if she wants to re-enter the house.

Alok Prasanna Kumar is an advocate and a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Keywords: Constitution Parliament assembly speaker Westminster system
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