Why the Absence of Deputy Speaker in Lok Sabha for Nearly 4 Years Sets a Bad Precedent

While the Congress claimed that the lack of a deputy speaker in the Lok Sabha is 'unconstitutional', government sources said it does not hinder the proceedings of the House.

New Delhi: The absence of a deputy speaker in the Lok Sabha for nearly four years has become the latest bone of contention between the Union government and the opposition.

While the Congress claimed that the lack of a deputy speaker in the Lower House is “unconstitutional”, government sources maintained that not having a deputy speaker in no way hinders the proceedings of the House and that there’s no “immediate requirement” for a deputy speaker.

Nearly three years and seven months have passed since the present Lok Sabha first met. As per Article 93 and 178 of the constitution, the House needs to elect two presiding officers as soon as possible.

However, while the Speaker Om Birla was elected soon after the present Lok Sabha met on June 17, 2019, the position of the deputy speaker still remains vacant.

According to the rules, the elected speaker should notify the election of his deputy almost immediately after his own appointment. However, Birla has refrained from doing so.

Speaking with The Wire, former secretary general of Lok Sabha, PDT Achary, said that although Birla is supposed to have taken the decision to elect a deputy speaker, practically, it is the Union government’s decision which ensures that a deputy speaker is elected.

“As per rules of the Lok Sabha, it is the speaker who decides the date of the election of the deputy speaker. But in reality, it is the government which consults with all parties and decides a consensus candidate for the role of the deputy speaker,” he said.

Conventionally, the government supports a candidate from the opposition for the deputy speaker’s position. For instance, Charanjit Singh Atwal of the Shiromani Akali Dal held the position during 2004-09 when the United Progressive Alliance-1 was in power. Similarly, Kariya Munda of the Bharatiya Janata Party was the deputy speaker between 2009-14. M. Thambidurai of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam held the chair during the first tenure of the Narendra Modi government.

It may be a tactical move by the Modi 2.0 government not to appoint an opposition member as Birla’s deputy and keep control of the Lower House firmly in its own hands. A Union minister told the Indian Express that there was no “immediate requirement” for a deputy speaker as “Bills are being passed and discussions are being held”, according to the procedures of the House. However, the minister also added that in the absence of Birla, there is “a panel of nine members – senior, experienced, and selected from different parties – who can act as chairpersons to assist the Speaker to run the House”.

The panel consists of BJP’s Rama Devi, Kirit P. Solanki, and Rajendra Agrawal; Congress’s Kodikunnil Suresh; A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; P.V. Midhun Reddy (YSRCP); Bhartruhari Mahtab of the Biju Janata Dal; N.K. Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party; and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar of the Trinamool Congress.

Achary, however, contends in his recent article that although an impression has been created that the office of the deputy speaker is not mandatory, the history of the office suggests otherwise.

“The history of the office of deputy speaker goes back to the government of India Act of 1919 when he was called deputy president as the Speaker was known as the president of the central legislative assembly. Although the main functions of a deputy speaker were to preside over the sittings of the assembly in the absence of the Speaker and chair the select committees, etc., the position was considered necessary to share the responsibility of running the House with the Speaker and guide the nascent committees,” he writes, emphasising that both the Speaker and the deputy speaker are important in the running of the House.

He added that the deputy speaker has the same powers as the Speaker and is the sole constitutional authority responsible for the functioning of the House in the absence of the Speaker.

“This tradition was continued after Independence, when a deputy speaker was elected to chair, besides the Speaker, the meetings of the constituent assembly (Legislative). The first Speaker was G.V. Mavalankar and the first deputy speaker was M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar who was elected by the constituent assembly (Legislative) on September 3, 1948. Later, under the new constitution, he was elected the first deputy speaker of the House of the people on May 28, 1952. Thereafter, every Lok Sabha had a deputy speaker who would be elected after a few days of the election of the Speaker,” he writes.

However, like in many other instances, Prime Minister Modi has breached conventions even in the election of a deputy speaker. Achary said that the government also has the option of choosing a BJP member to occupy the deputy speaker’s position, given the saffron party’s brute strength in the Lok Sabha, but that it has chosen to entirely keep the position vacant is surprising and sets a bad precedent.

He argued that any of the opposition members could move a resolution requesting the Speaker to fix a date for the election of a deputy speaker, since technically only the Speaker has the power to do so. “This is the first time that the Lok Sabha has gone without having a deputy speaker,” Achary said.

However, Congress members said that many such requests have been ignored by the Speaker earlier. Ideally, the election of a deputy speaker should be held within a week of the Speaker’s appointment but more than three years have passed since the issue was addressed.

Congress’s chief whip Kodikunnil Suresh told the New Indian Express that the party’s Lok Sabha leader, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, has made several petitions to the Speaker, parliamentary affairs minister, and even the Business Advisory Committees regarding the vacant deputy speaker’s position but they found no resonance with the government.

In a recent tweet, Congress’s chief spokesperson Jairam Ramesh, too, raised the issue. “For the last four years, there has been no deputy speaker in the Lok Sabha. This is unconstitutional. What a far cry from March 1956 when Nehru proposed the name of Sardar Hukam Singh, an Opposition Akali Dal MP & a critic of Nehru, for the post, and he was unanimously elected,” he tweeted.

The issue was also raised in the Supreme Court recently, when a bench comprising Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Justice P.S. Narasimha, and Justice J.B. Pardiwala, while hearing a petition, issued a notice to the Union government and five other assemblies – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Manipur – seeking responses on their failure to elect a deputy speaker.

The bench cited Articles 93 and 178, reminding the Union government that the election of a deputy speaker is mandatory.

The second part of the budget session begins on March 13, and is scheduled to end on April 6. It remains to be seen whether the Union government blinks under pressure and elects a deputy speaker, even if their tenure now will be for less than a year.