It is futile to expect politicians to be ever free from the partisan spirit. But some offices and institutions cannot be effectively run if they are not separated from party politics. The office of the Speaker of a legislature is a constitutional one which should have little to do with politics. The Speakers are popularly elected like other members of a legislature. But the similarity ends there. Once elected to the post, the Speaker represents, not the party whose candidate he was during the popular election, but the entire legislature. His duties and obligations are laid down not by his party but by the Constitution. Unfortunately, partisan Speakers are the norm in India rather than the exception. Even after being sworn in to their posts, they continue to protect the interests of their own parties. What Hashim Abdul Halim did on his final day as the Speaker of the outgoing West Bengal assembly was thus not surprising. The manner in which he voiced his concern over the “change” that the Opposition hopes to bring about in the state after the polls was the stuff of the Left Front’s political campaign. The Trinamul Congress and the Congress may have had their own political reasons for boycotting the last day’s session. But no reason could justify Mr Halim’s partisan conduct. It was particularly unfortunate of someone who is the longest-serving Speaker of a legislature anywhere in India.
Yet, Mr Halim could do himself and his office justice by following the example of a former comrade. Somnath Chatterjee, former Speaker of the Lok Sabha, managed to rise above party politics in order to meet the constitutional obligations of his office. He resigned as a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) once he was elected as the presiding officer of the Lok Sabha. Even more exemplary was his defiance of the party, which directed him to resign from the post before a crucial no-confidence vote. The price he paid in the form of expulsion from the CPI(M) was small compared to the moral victory he achieved by upholding the dignity of his office. Mr Halim has been known for his wit and his ability to keep his cool during ugly and even violent moments during the assembly’s proceedings. He could have used the last speech from his podium to act and speak like the non-partisan Speaker that he never was. It was obviously too late for him to change old habits.