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New Delhi: While over two years have passed since the elections to the 17th Lok Sabha and since the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government returned to power at the Centre, the post of Deputy Leader of Lok Sabha, which as per the convention goes to a member of the Opposition, has been lying vacant.
This is not a ceremonious post but a constitutionally mandated one. Also, like the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker is a presiding officer who enjoys all the legislative powers of a Speaker.
Though the Lok Sabha has a panel of chairpersons, appointed by the Speaker, which comprises nine MPs from various parties, who preside over the House when the Speaker is not in the Chair, they do not enjoy the same constitutional or administrative powers as the Speaker.
As such, the Opposition is peeved at the conduct of the Union government in denying them the right to have a Deputy Leader elected from their midst.
On August 9, Trinamool Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien flagged the issue of the post of Deputy Speaker in Lok Sabha lying vacant for over two years now. He accused the BJP of flouting the parliamentary norms in the process.
Opposition scoring GOALS in Parliament as BJP government puts up a weak defence.
— Derek O’Brien | ডেরেক ও’ব্রায়েন (@derekobrienmp) August 9, 2021
The Opposition’s demand for a Deputy Speaker comes amidst continuous day-long protests during the ongoing Monsoon Session to get the government to agree to a discussion on the Pegasus snooping issue.
Before O’Brien, Congress leader in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, had written to Speaker Om Birla in September 2020 to initiate the process, by election or consensus, of appointing a Deputy Speaker.
Chowdhury had recalled the convention of offering the post to the Opposition. However, while Birla has remained non-committal in his public comments on the issue, the BJP has chosen the path of silence in the matter.
Constitutional experts also believe that the post of Deputy Speaker should not have been kept vacant for so long. Former Secretary General of Lok Sabha P.D.T. Achary while speaking to The Wire, insisted that the post of Deputy Speaker was an important one.
“The Constitution says it is an important post and that is why it is important. The constitution also says that the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker will be done together,” he said.
As such, the Deputy Speaker is the second highest ranking legislative officer of the Lok Sabha.
Achary said the delay in appointment of Deputy Speaker was inordinate and the constitution calls for the post to be filled soon after the Speaker is elected. “After the Speaker is elected, the Deputy Speaker is also elected. According to the constitution both these posts should be filled up one after the other. First, the Speaker should be elected, and after that the Deputy Speaker – that may be after a day or a week,” he added.
Stating that the constitution does not say when they should be elected, Achary said it mentions that the election needs to take place, “as soon as maybe” – a phrase which does not mean “after two years or three years or that you may not elect the Deputy Speaker at all.”
What convention dictates
Asked whether a Deputy Speaker needs to be from an Opposition party, Achary said the constitution does not say that but there is a convention according to which the post is offered to the Opposition. “Mostly members of the Opposition have occupied the post,” he said.
Fifteen people have occupied the post of Deputy Speaker in independent India. In the first four Lok Sabhas, Congress leaders occupied the post for nearly 11 and half years of the 17 and half years that the party ruled, while Hukum Dev of the Shiromani Akali Dal was the first Deputy Speaker from an Opposition party. He served in the post for over six years from March 1956 to March 1962.
Thereafter from the time George Gilbert Swell of All Party Hill Leaders Conference was made Deputy Speaker on December 9, 1969, it became a tradition for the post to be held by an Opposition member.
The convention withstood the test of time and has never been broken since. Even when Atal Bihari Vajpayee of BJP came to power in 1998, he followed convention and P.M. Sayeed of the Congress remained Deputy Speaker from December 1998 till February 2004.
Thereafter the Congress too followed convention and Charanjit Singh Atwal of Shiromani Akali Dal and then Kariya Munda of BJP were made Deputy Speakers during the term of the Manmohan Singh government. When Narendra Modi formed his first government in 2014, he made M. Thambidurai of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam the Deputy Speaker and he served in the post for four years and 285 days.
However, following its win in the 2019 polls, the Modi government is yet to hand over the post to an Opposition member.
The Deputy Speaker, Achary said, is a presiding officer.
“When he presides over a sitting, he has all the powers of a Speaker. A Deputy Speaker is also the ex-officio chairman of some committees by virtue of his position. A Deputy Speaker also presides when a Speaker is not there or when the Speaker’s office is vacant on account of resignation, or illness, or death or any other reason. When the Speaker’s post falls vacant, it is the Deputy Speaker who assumes all the powers of the Speaker and exercises both legislative powers and administrative powers.”
Otherwise, when the Speaker is there, Achary explained, the Speaker has both a legislative function, as he presides over the House, as well as administrative powers. When a Deputy Speaker only presides, he does not have any administrative powers in normal course.
Apart from the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, there is a panel of chairpersons. It comprises MPs appointed by the Speaker. In the absence of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, one of the persons on the panel chairs the meeting of the House. However, they do not enjoy any administrative powers and neither do they chair any Committee by virtue of their post, said Achary.
However, when both the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are absent, one of the chairpersons chair the session of the House.
As of now there are nine members who are part of the Panel of Chairpersons. They are Rama Devi, Kirit P. Solanki and Rajendra Agrawal of BJP; Kodikunnil Suresh of Congress; A. Raja of DMK; P. V. Midhun Reddy of YSRCP; Bhartruhari Mahtab of Biju Janata Dal, N. K. Premachandran of Revolutionary Socialist Party; and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar of Trinamool Congress.