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Rediff.com  » News » India has moved on, her leaders
have not

India has moved on, her leaders
have not

June 08, 2009 17:52 IST
'May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.'

Spoken by William Lenthall to an angry King Charles I on January 4, 1642, those words have often been quoted to define a Speaker's role. But what does a Speaker do when the House insists on speaking nothing but the language of caste, creed, gender, and regionalism?

I thought the recently concluded general election demonstrated an Indian electorate moving away from petty considerations. Our elected lords and masters, however, beg to disagree. Judging by the events leading up to the election of the Speaker and the oily speeches that followed, both the BJP and the Congress are all set to plumb further depths of silliness.

It is no secret at all that Meira Kumar was not the Congress's first choice as Speaker; the office was supposed to go to V Kishore Chandra S Deo, the Congress MP from Araku (Andhra Pradesh).

As is the norm, the principal Opposition party had been kept in the know. The BJP was also told that it could nominate the deputy speaker, which, again, is standard practice.

It is at this point that things began to go awry. There have been reports that some people in his home state began to plot against the prospective candidate, carrying their tales to Sonia Gandhi. At some point, 10, Janpath was also informed that the BJP would be nominating its MP from Indore, Sumitra Mahajan, as deputy speaker.

It should be pointed out both the potential nominees were qualified for their posts. Kishore Chandra Deo chaired the privileges committee in the last Lok Sabha and Sumitra Mahajan was on the panel of chairmen (the ones who take over when neither the Speaker nor the deputy speaker is present).

However, Sumitra Mahajan's candidature was presented to 10, Janpath as a dirty trick on the BJP's part. Sonia Gandhi was told that it was aimed at grabbing credit for giving a women a high-profile job before the Congress could steer the Women's Reservation Bill through Parliament.

At some point, all this led the Congress to decide on a pre-emptive strike of its own, a woman as Speaker.

Having already decided on a woman, the Congress decided to go for a two-for-one approach, getting someone who was both a Dalit and a female. This put Meira Kumar high on the list.

It didn't seem to matter Meira Kumar had just been allotted the water resources portfolio in the Union Cabinet. Forty-eight hours into her new office, she was the Congress's candidate as Speaker. The decision was taken in such haste and so late that there was no time left for the usual courtesy of discussions with the Opposition parties; they were informed rather than consulted.

If the Congress had behaved badly, the BJP's response was equally deplorable. In a tit-for-tat development the party decided that if the Congress was putting up a Dalit it would nominate someone from the Scheduled Tribes.

Jharkhand is currently under President's Rule, which means that assembly polls will be held soon enough -- and that was all the reason the BJP needed to put up its MP from Khunti, Kariya Munda.

It was on these grounds that the two senior posts in the Lok Sabha were decided. Both Meira Kumar and Kariya Munda have ample legislative experience -- the Speaker was first elected in 1985, the deputy speaker in 1977 -- but their qualifications barely seemed to matter to the party leaders.

The Speaker's election was followed by much self-congratulatory speechmaking as the politicians patted themselves on the back for electing a 'Dalit ki beti'. Did anyone think of the message they were sending, that birth is all that matters while achievements count for less than nothing?

How often was Meira Kumar reminded that she is a Dalit, a woman, and, for good measure, Babu Jagjivan Ram's daughter? Those are three things in which she had no choice.

The Speaker earned a degree in law from the University of Delhi. She earned a diploma in Spanish. She earned a right to join the foreign service, and served in Madrid and London. She earned her political credentials by winning elections from Bihar, not a Congress-friendly state for the past twenty years. But none of that seemed to matter, did it?

It is fair to say that the prime minister carries little responsibility for all this. The understanding is that the politics shall be handled from 10, Janpath rather than Race Course Road, and a Speaker's election is a political issue. However, Meira Kumar's elevation means that the process of ministry building is still not complete.

The water resources ministry needs someone to head operations. Bihar needs representation at the Cabinet table, and there aren't too many candidates. Apart from the Speaker, the only Congress MP from the state in the Lok Sabha is Kishanganj's Maulana Mohammad Asrarul Haque, and he is someone who fought the Congress several times before accepting its ticket.

The water resources ministry may not be the only one requiring a new face. The ministry of heavy industries & public enterprises ended up with Vilasrao Deshmukh as its Cabinet minister and Pratik Prakashbapu Patil as its minister of state. Both men are from Maharashtra, and that is apparently a strict no-no.

But Maharashtra goes in for assembly polls before the year ends, so both men must be given decent posts.

Congress circles are also talking about giving some decent job to the aggrieved Kishore Chandra Deo. This will, inevitably, lead to another round of politics.

I thought India had given a national vote, one reasonably free of parochial considerations. Our leaders continue to belie expectations, refusing to rise above caste and creed, gender and region. India has moved on, her leaders have not.

You may have seen images of the newly-elected Speaker being escorted to the chair by the leaders of the House. That is a tradition borrowed from Britain, going back to days when being the Speaker, caught between parliament and king, could lead a man to imprisonment or execution. Some speakers had to be literally forced to accept the dubious honour. Might the new Speaker too come to regret her elevation?

T V R Shenoy