The Opposition must have a say but the government must also have a way: Sumitra Mahajan

By: | Published: August 9, 2015 12:11 AM

Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan contends that she exhausted all options before suspending 25 Congress MPs, argues media should not be present during standing committee proceedings, and explains why ‘unparliamentary remarks’ need to be expunged despite proceedings being shown live.

Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan contends that she exhausted all options before suspending 25 Congress MPs,
argues media should not be present during standing committee proceedings, and explains why ‘unparliamentary remarks’ need to be expunged despite proceedings being shown live.

Why Sumitra Mahajan

Sumitra Mahajan, 72, is the 16th Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The first BJP member and the second woman to occupy the high office, Mahajan is a seasoned MP. Since 1989, she has won eight consecutive elections to the Lok Sabha. Previously, she was the deputy mayor of Indore. Mahajan is a stickler for rules. Last week, for example, she enforced the one that bars members from displaying placards in the House, and suspended 25 Congress MPs for five sittings, provoking a boycott.

Pradeep Kaushal: You have suspended 25 Congress MPs for carrying placards and shouting in the well of the House. Though the rules bar members from displaying placards in the House, such disruptions have happened in the past too. So what made you take such a strong action against them?

From the first day (of this session), I have tried to give a message to all members to stay positive. I have been holding meetings, I have tried for members to get a chance (to speak). I brought in Rule 377 (under which a member can bring a matter to the notice of the House). I did not want Question Hour to be disrupted so that people could ask questions. I have figures to show that I tried to give a chance to members of every party.

Now, when the disruption happened, I told them not to display placards and asked them why they were coming to the well of the House. There are so many ways to show your opposition. There are rules through which you can raise your demands. If you want to shout slogans, you can do that from your desk, but why do you have to come to the well and show placards? At least this can be avoided. I had also called a meeting to say that I do not have an agenda in what the ruling or the opposition parties decide. I called everybody. Despite that, for eight days, they continued doing it. And then they displayed placards in front of the Speaker and the minister so as to block them. That, along with shouting slogans, was the limit. They crossed the limit. Before that, (Congress MP) Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury stood up and tried to climb onto the table. I called a meeting. They were still not ready to give up.

I know I have taken a very stringent action but I have to, I can’t help it.

Pradeep Kaushal: Is there any scope for reconsideration, given that some parties have declared they will boycott the Lok Sabha proceedings?

Let us see. I have taken the action and have asked the Trinamool Congress’s Sudip Bandopadhyay if he saw what was going on. Earlier, when I was naming Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Saugata Roy stood up. I asked him if he will be able to say sorry. And you saw what type of sorry he said. I also asked Sudip. Yes I agree with you that I should not take such stringent action, but will you help me and ask them to put down the placards? Nobody is able to do that. Now, let us see and face it (this suspension). If you have to face something for a good thing, you must be ready.

Maneesh Chhibber: What do you think about questions being raised over the motives of your action and allegations of partisan politics?

I did not take the action immediately, but after eight days of discussing with them and calling meetings of all the leaders. I asked them, ‘Can we stop showing placards, coming into the well and shouting slogans, or at least put down the placards?’. I gave them all the options. So I don’t think it is partisan. What the government and the Opposition are thinking is up to them. I am not getting into politics. I have to see how to run the House. The Opposition must have a say but the government must also have a way. I have to give the chance to the Opposition to say something and I have to give the way to the government to work.

It may be right or wrong, I don’t know,  because I have also become Speaker for the first time. I have done whatever I did as per my own thinking. If a person is in Parliament for the last 25 years, I don’t think we need to teach him anything.

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: What do you think about obstructionism in Parliament?

Parliament’s rulebook has been made by a committee of representatives from all parties. So is obstruction the only way to oppose something, when there are so many rules that we parliamentarians have framed? My son and your son did it, so should our grandsons also do it? Should we not stop our children from doing that for our good, for our future?

Coomi Kapoor: In the last Parliament, the BJP adopted the same attitude and said that obstructionism was a legitimate form of people’s protest in Parliament. Do you agree?

Before the BJP did it in the last Parliament, the Congress did it in 2000-2004. All these records are there with me but I am not giving them. I am not differentiating between the Congress and the BJP. Why not end something which is obstructing something good? Parliament is for discussion. Because you have disrupted (Parliament), should others also do the same thing?

P Vaidyanathan Iyer: In a democracy, we all understand the Opposition will create a din in the well. But to what extent, do you, as the Lok Sabha Speaker, exercise restraint and try to ensure that there is discipline, maybe without using a suspension order?

I told you, I did try — I held meetings with MPs, I had dialogues so many times. These things happen behind the curtains. Maybe I fell short in some way, I accept, that’s why I had to suspend the MPs.

Manoj CG: Did you expect the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the other parties to boycott Parliament after your suspension order?

I will not say anything.

Raghvendra Rao: When rules don’t allow placards inside the House, how do MPs carry them inside?

MPs are not frisked. Political parties are given offices (inside the House). The placards can be made there. They can be  printed from the computer there and be brought to the House. Tomorrow you will say, frisk the MPs also. That cannot happen. After all, they are honourable members.

Nishant Shekhar: Do you think a no-work-no-pay policy, as suggested by Union minister Mahesh Sharma, will put obstructionism to an end?

Parliament has a committee for every issue and that committee has to take a decision. The committee has members from all parties. It’s a good thing. But then you can go on a strike and say, ‘So what if I went on a strike? I should still get my salary’. Some members say that protesting is also their job.

Nishant Shekhar: PM Narendra Modi has urged those who can do without the subsidy on gas to give it up. Now there are demands, especially on social media, that MPs give up the subsidised food they get in the Parliament canteen. What is your view?

The subsidised food is not only for parliamentarians. It’s for whoever comes to Parliament, be it MPs, MPs’ guests, media, our staff, our security persons, both internal security personnel and those from outside. It is not like going to a restaurant where waiters get you napkins and someone takes your order. Selected food is there, like khichdi and your usual everyday fare. MPs sometimes don’t even have the time to go and eat in the canteen. I rarely go and eat there, because I am busy inside. Then you go to some committee, and when that work is over, you go home. Why will you stay back in Parliament? Subsidy is not that much of an issue. Subsidy is for all. Not only for Parliament members.

Some members think ‘we don’t want subsidies’. For that, we need to start a separate canteen. I am trying for that. But why should I object to subsidised food for our staff? Our Class 3, Class 4 staff, security persons use it. Some of them come from faraway places. MPs who are from nearby places, say Haryana, have 8-10 guests. People who come to visit, they will say you showed us Parliament but did not even offer tea or any food.

Manoj CG: Parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live. TV channels also show them. So what is the utility of expunging certain unparliamentary remarks when the whole world has already seen them?

Somebody asked me about this. Yes, it was telecast on TV. But when it is on record, it remains there for many years. When we celebrated 50 years of Parliament, I saw quite a few examples then. I read speeches by former members. Records are there, you can get them.

The person who speaks a word can sometimes forget it. After some time, you will also forget it. Your neighbour will also forget. But if it remains there, after me, some 50 years after me, someone can read it and say, oh yes, this was said, this happened. That’s why we are expunging them.

Ruhi Tewari: The government has agreed to withdraw all the major amendments it had made in the land Bill. You have been the chairperson of the standing committee on rural development. You were the chairperson when the land Bill was introduced. What do you have to say about that?

Parliament has to decide that. It is not my subject. As Speaker, I will tell MPs the Bill is here, discuss it, decide on it. Now I am not supposed to say anything. Yes, I was the chairperson and my report is before you. You can go through it. You have to make certain changes as per the requirements of the time. Changes happen. I can’t comment
on them.

Manoj CG: Should the proceedings of the parliamentary committees be open to the media, like it is in the US?

Never. Standing committees are there partly because we don’t get time to discuss everything in Parliament. In a committee meeting, so many times it happens that I don’t agree with someone who is explaining something to me. Then he/she is telling me something. It goes on. But tomorrow if the media is there, we will say everything for the media’s benefit.

The discussions that happen there are always above the party line and a unanimous report is expected. When I was chairperson of the rural development committee, and we were discussing the land acquisition Bill and putting together our report, it happened that one member used to say no, no, it should not be like this, no, no the line should be like this. After that, I would say, if you object to that line, give a dissent note. Then he would say no, I don’t want to give a dissent note. If the media was present, it would have said, ‘See, he didn’t want that, but madam forced him on it. He backed out on a dissent note’. In media presence, that open-mindedness can’t be there.

Seema Chishti: Is it difficult to be the Speaker when there is such a small opposition numerically? Since you are an MP from a ruling party, is it difficult to convince Parliament about your neutrality?

It is not about opposition numbers. It is about what and how they speak. There is an MP who is the only representative of his party — he follows the rules so much, he always gets a chance to speak. For all-party meetings, I also call parties which have only two members.

Pradeep Kaushal: It has been alleged that the cameras of Lok Sabha TV don’t focus on the Opposition. Are there any standing rules or is there a discretion?

The Opposition itself has told me that, madam, you don’t show us. But I said no, I have not said anything like that.

So I started looking at it. In 2010, directions were given to them, that when someone — from the Opposition or whosoever — comes in the way, the camera should focus only on the Chair, or on the person who is speaking. I think that is right. Usually, the person wants to speak but he doesn’t get the chance, because of this disruption. He wants to say something or raise an issue for his constituency, it must go on air and people from the constituency also must see their elected member speaking. Otherwise, he will never get a chance, only this halla gulla (chaos) will go on.

Coomi Kapoor: What do you think of the British system, where when a person becomes the Speaker, he or she resigns from the party so that he is less partisan in his behaviour?

Actually, I had just gone there. They have two types of systems. Yes, it is right, the Speaker should not be a party person. Here too we try to do that. But there, the Speaker contests in the next election unopposed, as he can’t go to his constituency.

We have our own democratic system, why should we go to the British for this and that? We must look to them, because we have learnt a lot from them, but the thought should be ours.

I had dinner with the Speaker there. I told him yes, we expunge words. He said, ‘You expunge the words, we never do that, we expunge the person. How do you allow this?’.

Nishant Shekhar: In Rajasthan, a candidate for the zilla parishad elections has to be Class X pass. Do you think MPs should also have a minimum educational qualification?

Well, you can’t say that just because an MP is not a graduate, he doesn’t understand the problems of people. No doubt, some education is necessary. But first, a Parliament member represents his constituency, and works for its development and welfare. Education is not the only criterion. His own understanding, sentiments and experience also count. It happens quite a few times that someone is not even a graduate but is doing more service than a graduate. Indian democracy is different. We gave everyone here the right to vote. Then we didn’t worry about whether the person is educated. Whether a person is a scientist or a common man, he gets that one vote. If he has the right to vote, if he can understand matters and cast his vote, why can’t he contest elections?

Transcribed by Sonam Chauhan and Sanchari Bhattacharya

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