Soon after storming out of the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee meeting amidst the hearing on the cash-for-query allegations against her, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra has alleged that she was subjected to humiliating personal questions from the panel.
Om Birla, the Speaker of the 17th Lok Sabha, is a man in touch with his roots. Long before he became a politician he worked as a social worker, helping people with meagre resources at his disposal, and taking up issues that touched their lives the most. He was elected to the Rajasthan Assembly thrice before being elected to the 16th Lok Sabha from the Kota-Bundi constituency. He was unanimously elected as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha on June 19, 2019.
Om Birla completed three years of his tenure as the speaker on June 19. These three years were marked by the corona pandemic, farmers’ agitation, and what have you rocked the country. These developments in the country had a bearing on the functioning of the Lok Sabha. But with his signature smile, he ran the house with ease and managed to make his tenure one of the most productive periods of India’s lower house. He spoke to Gyaneshwar Dayal and Anjali Bhatia about the issues that he confronts while discharging his duties as the speaker. Excerpts:
Sir, you have completed three years of your tenure as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. What have been your accomplishments, and what you wish had happened?
In these three years, in all the eight sessions we had, the cooperation of the honorable members was exemplary, whether it was debated, taking up issues, or late-night sitting, they all cooperated and that is the reason that these three years have been very productive. The honorable members proactively participated in all the sessions whether question hour, President’s address, passing of the budget, or debating the bills. Their wholehearted participation rendered all eight sessions very productive. We have longer hours of debate than stipulated in these eight sessions.
I take this occasion to thank the honorable prime minister and leaders of all parties for their cooperation and participation. I am sure that in times to come, we will be able to serve the poorest of the poor through meaningful debates, dialogues, and high-level conventions as these lead to better policies and legislative bills.
Sir, you have rightly pointed out that the three years have been very productive. But then most of the bills rather than going to standing committees are being pushed through the shortcut of select committees. Do you think it dilutes the very efficacy of the legislative process?
Sending bills to the standing committees is a procedure to ensure that there are no lacunas in them and if there are, they should be eliminated, that is why they are referred to the standing committees. However, certain bills are very important from the administrative point of view and have a bearing on the welfare of the people, delaying them would be counterproductive. So, what I try to do instead, is to give them more time for debate so that they can be thoroughly discussed and can be made into laws with minimum delay.
You were doing a lot of social work even before you began your political career. Now, most political leaders are confined to social media. What is your take on that?
Well, every political activist must be a social worker first. To become one, he must understand the problems the poor and downtrodden face and must try to alleviate them. He must help people in all possible ways. Though raising their concerns in Parliament or legislative assemblies or other platforms does serve the purpose, they should be directly connected to the people they represent.
As you saw during the pandemic, people, NGOs, government institutions, the private sector, and everyone helped people and fought it united. If a people’s representative takes the initiative in this regard, people get more motivated. He must do some social work to set an example and show direction to others.
During your tenure, there was farmers’ agitation, then some other issues kept cropping up one after another which had a bearing on the parliamentary proceedings. Many times, there was a ruckus and ugly scenes in the house. Do you think we can effectively handle such situations or there should be some other mechanism to deal with such situations?
Though there were roadblocks and speed breakers, we managed to run the house. We allowed meaningful debates and focused on only relevant topics. Still, some impediments were there which we resolved by talking to leaders and finding an amicable solution for the smooth functioning of the house.
Do you think the role of running the house smoothly depends more on the speaker rather than the government? It’s said if the speaker has a good rapport with all party leaders, he can sail through. What’s your take?
It is not like that. The government comes first, hence it has to take the lead. The speaker only comes into the picture when a general agreement is reached.
The Lok Sabha is dominated by NDA with its sheer numbers while the Opposition’s strength is abysmally low. Does this put them on the receiving end as they can be shouted down easily? How do you ensure that they can effectively speak when their turn comes?
The speaker should never make a decision on the strength of the party but on the merit of the case. The more vocal and strong the Opposition, the more transparency in the system to make the government accountable. We need to work for the betterment of the country. It is always my endeavour to give ample time to every speaker no matter which party he/she belongs to and have his say in the house. Sometimes yes there is hooting and people are shouted down but I try to ensure order in the house and give every member his due time.
Recently, Adhiranjan Choudhary wrote to you about the ED questioning Rahul Gandhi for a privilege motion. What is your take on that?
Yes, he wrote to me, but not for a privilege motion. He has raised concern about the whole matter which he has all the right to. And I have taken cognizance of it. Well, the members have privileges in the house, there is no doubt about it, but the law is the same for everyone regardless. I think we all understand that.
Sir, have you constituted a committee to delve into the matter of anti-defection law. When is its report expected and what changes it shall bring about?
That is correct, such a committee was made. This committee has already submitted its interim report, the final report is awaited. We are consulting the legal experts regarding its suggestions. I think soon something would come out of it.
You have traveled around the world and seen the functioning of other parliaments too. How do you see the parliamentary system?
After the Independence, it was thought what could be the best form of government for our country. The founding fathers chose parliamentary democracy. Now, the whole world is unanimous that it is the best form of government. In the beginning, people had doubts if it would work for India, but we proved their apprehensions wrong. We have shown the world that parliamentary democracy works. In the last 75 years, we have shown the world that it is an effective and functional way to govern.
You have seen the Lok Sabha as a member and now as a speaker. There are concerns over the fact that the level of debates in the house is going down, do you agree?
These concerns are often aired, and we work on it by capacity building of the honorable members and giving them information and inputs through various means so that they can speak with more accuracy and with facts and figures. We are making use of information technology to give them information speedily and also prepare research papers that are made available to the honorable members. We have made arrangements for the members to have access to old debates in the house which would empower them. Then there is a system for the orientation of new members which is an ongoing process. So, we endeavour to have good and meaningful debates in the house.
Recently you visited Vietnam and Cambodia, how was your experience?
It was on an invitation from the government, I led a parliamentary delegation. They all look forward to India and want to learn from our experiences. Many such programmes for their training and exchange of ideas do take place from time to time.