The mortal remains of Rabi Ray were consigned to the sacred fire in his village in Puri district of Odisha on 7 March. He was born in the same village on 26 November 1926. Ray was Speaker of the ninth Lok Sabha and although re-elected to the tenth Lok Sabha, he withdrew from contentious party politics following the tradition of great speakers and led the life of a reflective recluse.
As a young legislative officer in the Lok Sabha, I had the good fortune of working under his speakership. Rank did not matter to him as he was a socialist to the core, unaffected by trappings of official position. He was readily accessible and unassuming.
He enthused officers and staff by observing that “servicing Parliament must be construed a privilege, an ennobling enterprise”. His sagacious advice to officials was, “be faithful to conflicting shades of opinions, be observant, disinterested and objective”. He belonged to the great league of speakers like G. V. Mavalankar who propounded and upheld the principle that the secretariats of Parliament must be placed on an independent footing and be free from the control of the Executive, the cardinal principle of constitutionalism enshrined in Article 98.
Of course the article has virtually become a dead letter as senior-most positions in both the Secretariats have been given to a few cherry-picked officers of the executive debunking the constitutional directive of separation of powers.
As Speaker, Rabi Ray had perhaps the toughest call when he had to give a ruling on defection which had grave implications for the survival of the very government that was responsible for electing (though unanimously) him to the post. On 6 November 1990, a group of 58 MPs of Lok Sabha formed a breakaway group under the name of Janata Dal (S).
The precise question was about the timing of the split vis-a-vis the timing of expulsion in view of claims and counter claims from either side. Displaying his quintessential integrity and imperturbable judicial temperament and mindful of the consequences that the Government would be reduced to minority, he gave an impartial ruling which was widely acclaimed as bold and of far-reaching import and raised his stature as an independent and judicious Speaker.
He admitted the impeachment motion against Justice V. Ramaswami (on12 March 1991) and constituted a committee composed of Justice P B Sawant of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice P D Desai of the Bombay High Court and Justice O Chinnappa Reddy, retired judge of the Supreme Court to investigate the allegations.
The committee found Ramaswami guilty on 11 of 14 charges. His decision was challenged in the Supreme Court but was upheld. It is another matter that the motion for removal fell through as the ruling Congress and its allies abstained.
Another path-breaking decision taken by him was about regulation of Zero Hour. An avowed proponent of democratic pluralism, he convened a meeting of leaders of political parties and groups and evolved consensus so that members are able to articulate matters of urgent public importance during Zero Hour and the precious time of the House is saved. The innovation has stood the test of time.
He was also responsible for introducing the Subject Committees, paving the way for setting up of department-related standing committees. Transparency was an article of faith with him and he made earnest endeavours to see that the proceedings of Parliament were telecast live and for which purpose he took definitive initiative.
The Presidential Address was first telecast live on 20 December 1989 though the initiative to telecast House proceedings fructified later.
His book, Parliamentary Diplomacy, has a ring of contemporary immediacy and contextual relevance. Clad in simple khadi-kurta and dhoti, he was an epitome of transparent simplicity and honesty and commanded respect and adoration of plebeians and parliamentarians alike. His stature rose further when he refused to sit in the Mercedes car, the official vehicle used by his predecessor, and preferred an Ambassador car for official engagements.
He was first elected to the Fourth Lok Sabha and later to the Rajya Sabha. He was Minister for Health and Family Welfare in the Morarji Desai Cabinet and also General Secretary of the Janata Party.
As student leader, he was arrested for unfurling the National Flag by the Britishers laying the foundation of his politics in Independent India. He was arrested during Emergency and jailed. His ideas and thoughts kick-started debates as he wrote with deep concern and conviction in Chaukhamba, a Hindi weekly of (the then) Socialist Party and Samata, an Oriya monthly.
He was a socialist to the core and a profound thinker of intellectual integrity. His speeches and writings were reflective, forthright and constructive. He had observed presciently long ago that “the Congress of today has become the BJP of yesteryears and the BJP vice versa”.
Today, the way the leaders switch sides shows beyond doubt that there is hardly any ideological distinction between parties and such parties cannot claim to “be parties with a difference”. Rabi Ray exemplified the hallowed principle that the Speaker shuns party politics as he belongs to all sides of the House or to none. After completing his term as member of the Tenth Lok Sabha, he withdrew from active politics but continued to advance the cause of the poor and the marginalised through his outreach programmes of socio-economic reconstruction through voluntary organisations, conversations and writings despite indifferent health.
Much after he had renounced active politics and whenever he came to Delhi for medical aid, many senior leaders, cutting across political lines, made it a point to meet him and talked of his rehabilitation but he refused any gubernatorial assignment.
It is said that the office of the Speaker “does not demand rare qualities but it demands common qualities in rare degree”. Rabi Ray was endowed with those qualities in abundant measure. He brought transparency into a parliamentary administration that was still shackled by the ethos of Emergency. His calm disposition, patience, dignity of voice and bearing, impartiality and his contribution to the anti-defection law and parliamentary procedure secure for him a permanent place in our democratic pantheon.
The writer is former Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha and author of The Indian Parliament - Beyond the seal and signature of democracy.