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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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SOMNATH, TANASHAH!
- The speaker, if he were not diffident, could transform politics

I could not believe my eyes. Somnath Chatterjee offered to resign the speakership of the lower house! What surprised me even more was the language he used: 'Since my assumption of this office, I have tried humbly to the best of my ability to discharge my onerous duties. I have been earnestly requesting all the Hon'ble leaders and parties for their help and cooperation for running the House and also seeking guidance from them. I am thankful to all for giving me assurance of their help and cooperation. But in spite of that the House could not function yesterday after the question hour.'

Is this the Somnath Chatterjee I have seen' During the time I was in the finance ministry, I used to watch the left throw verbal rocks at my minister. The most formidable of them was Somnath Chatterjee. With his stentorian voice he did not need a microphone ' he could drown the chatter of all the other 542 members on his own. He brooked no interruption. There were many masters of noise in Parliament, but none was so masterly. And nothing could unnerve him; on the contrary, it was his speciality to reduce ministers to tears.

And this towering leader is reduced to grovelling before the motley mob of the opposition! His offer of resignation is itself impolitic. Every time one offers to resign and does not, one weakens one's position ' as the Prime Minister would have told him. I bet the malicious opposition leaders are saying, 'This man is not going anywhere. He is a sitting duck; let us aim some more potshots at him.' 'To the best of my ability' ' he obviously means disability. And this, coming from a man of his parliamentary experience and achievement, is breathtaking display of diffidence. Who wants him earnestly to request the ruffians he has to keep in order' And seeking guidance from them ' the very idea is ridiculous. If a brat starts bawling in a concert, does one say to him, 'Hon'ble brat! Would you be so kind to keep your voice down' One takes him out as fast as possible, and gives him one behind the ear. The speaker may not use such techniques on Mananiya Samsad Sabhya; but he has powers that are even more intimidating if he would only use them. And thanking them for help and cooperation' What help' What cooperation' That is the way to leave the house to the mercy of hooligans.

Remember G.M.C. Balayogi, who sat in the speaker's chair for three years. When he first occupied the chair, he did not know whether he was coming or going. The racket emanated from so many parts of the house that his head constantly swivelled from side to side. He knew no Hindi, the language of the disorderly members, so he knew neither what foul abuses they were shouting nor how to address them. For days one could see him pleading with just one word at his command, 'Please! Please! Please!'

But he did not offer to resign. He just soldiered on. And by and by he worked out a modus vivendi with the politicians. When senior leaders wanted to be contrary, he did not try to control them; he just adjourned the house. But if a single Ahluwalia went on disrupting the house, Balayogi kept disrupting him till he stopped. Balayogi was no genius, but he managed to keep the show running.

There have been better speakers than he. Take Shivraj Patil, the present home minister; he was an extremely durable speaker. And those members over whom he presided would have considered him an outstanding speaker. His handicap as home minister was his strength as speaker: even if the country collapses in rubble around him, he is completely unruffled. He let the unruly kids tire themselves out. The more childish members tried to provoke him, the less notice he took of them. If he appealed to anyone, it was to the leaders of the parties; and then he raised his voice just enough for them to hear: it was as if he spoke to them personally. This personal equation with the front bench enabled him to delegate to a considerable extent the task of policing the rabble.

Would that work now' Maybe not. As time goes, the number of miscreants in the house increases. And the two leaders of the house ' on the side of the government and the opposition ' are such gentle creatures, they could not discipline even a mouse. And Mr Chatterjee has spent a lifetime booming at people ' not quite the formula for building personal relationships with them.

There is, however, one technique that has not been used by past speakers, and which only the present speaker can: he can outshout any member of the house. He may bring the house crashing down in the process; but no member can make a bigger noise than he. He should try it ' just thundering, 'Go back to your seat!' or 'You are out of order!' or whatever. It does not matter what he shouts ' as long as he defeats the opposition.

More seriously, Mr Chatterjee has nothing to lose. If he ceases to be a speaker, he is not going to die of shame. It is worse for him to look pathetic. He should raise his ambition and set a standard that his successors will be proud to uphold. And that means ensuring that the house conducts its business.

It may seem an insuperable obstacle that most members neither know what that business is nor how to conduct it. They have got themselves elected to make deals outside the house and to provide their parties lungpower when necessary. But lungpower cannot be exercised all day and night; despite all appearances, these members are human. So it has been the convention of our Parliament that all the shouting and rushing into the well is done before lunch ' primarily in the question hour and the zero hour. At those times, whenever the members want to exercise their lungs, the speaker should let them, and even lead them if they prove deficient.

But they cannot stay in the house for long ' they have business to transact, and they are busy people. So most of the time, the house does not have even twenty members present. The speaker should prolong such periods; if too many members start coming, he should prolong the sitting hours into early morning. He should abolish recesses.

He should make sure that the house gets through its legislative business. If he does so, even the stupidest member of the house will realize before long that making a ruckus is counterproductive ' that if he disrupts the house, he will have to neglect the business back in his constituency, and he will be thrown out in the next election. As more legislative business is done, as more debate takes place, members will soon emerge who are good at it. They will make their names, and we will again get some national leaders ' not the tinpot dictators who rule the so-called parties today. The speaker can transform our politics. He should not miss the chance.

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