`My concern is the people of India'

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST



Interview with Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

Somnath Chatterjee, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, has been one of the most eminent parliamentarians in the country for well over 30 years. First elected to the Lok Sabha in 1971, he embarked on his tenth term as an MP in 2004. From 1989 to 2004, when he took charge as the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee was the leader of the Parliamentary Party of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In 1996, he was conferred the `Outstanding Parliamentarian' award.

A Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court and the Calcutta High Court, Somnath Chatterjee took his Barrister of Law degree from Middle Temple, United Kingdom. He also holds a masters degree from the University of Cambridge. Before leaving for Cambridge, Somnath Chatterjee studied in Calcutta University.

Since 1968, when he became a member of the CPI(M), he has been an active trade unionist and a political and social worker. In 1987, he became a member of the West Bengal State committee of the CPI(M) and in 1998 a member of its central committee. From 1999 to 2004, Somnath Chatterjee served as Chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation and was actively involved in various other State government projects.

In an interview he gave Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, Somnath Chatterjee spoke on his new role and the functions of Parliament. Excerpts:

What do you think of the different role you are playing in Parliament after a long and distinguished stint as a prominent leader in the Opposition?

It is a challenging job and it is a very important job, no doubt about it. The Lok Sabha is the highest elected body of the country under the Constitution and it represents the entire country. Under our Constitution, it has been assigned a very important task. It is in the Lok Sabha where laws are enacted, important issues are discussed and debated. The Central government's Budget is placed here. When the people vote to elect members of the Lok Sabha, they obviously support various parties' manifestos and programmes. They approve of the policies and programmes of the party they vote for, and therefore it is expected that the elected members of Parliament will try to implement their policies and programmes. For that purpose it is essential that the proceedings of Parliament should be held in a proper manner. The job of the Speaker is to see to it that Parliament functions in a proper manner. By that I mean not just issues within the jurisdiction of the Central government, which are discussed and debated, but people's issues and concerns are taken note of.

The most important aspect of parliamentary democracy and the functioning of Parliament is that the Constitution provides that the Central Council of Ministers is responsible to the House of People. That means that the people, through their representatives, will exercise their right to question the government's actions, programmes and policies and elicit information from the government. Therefore during the `question hour', Members of Parliament, mainly from the Opposition, put questions to the Ministers and seek clarifications. This is a very important method of ensuring the accountability of the government of the day.

Elaborate rules have been framed over the years for the conduct of business in the Lok Sabha. There are what are called directions of the Speaker, which are binding on the members; there is also a handbook providing guidance to Members of Parliament. The Speaker is duty-bound to see to it that the rules are followed in letter and spirit and also that the House conducts itself in a manner befitting the great role assigned to it. What is most important to me is that the House concerns itself with the problems of the people.

It is also important to me that people should have faith in the Lok Sabha. They are interested in the functioning of the Lok Sabha because they want to know what is being done for them. Unless and until the Lok Sabha functions in a manner which earns the people's confidence, I am afraid the people's faith in the system of parliamentary democracy will become weak. That is why it is essential that the House conducts itself in a manner that gets the approval of the people.

Now, sometimes there are criticisms in the press and from the people, including young people, that sometimes time and money are wasted in Parliament; that no useful work is being done there; that members are only interested in their salary and allowances; and that the House of People is not a serious body. I am sure this is not a correct impression. Members of Parliament try their best to do their job and discharge their obligations, but no one can deny that occasionally there are situations that are not desirable, and that is when people feel that their time and money are being wasted. The Speaker's job is to see to it that this most important body in our country functions properly and the Opposition also gets its proper due share of time. I feel that every parliamentary democracy needs an alert and vigilant Opposition. Parliamentary democracy proceeds on the premise that there is always an Opposition that will be able to take up governance by substitution. The ruling party will not be raising issues that will embarrass the government, or reveal any weakness. It is the Opposition that can do it. I have been trying in my humble way not only to accord full respect to the Opposition, but to give them more than their share of opportunity to voice their concerns.

I have had the privilege of being in Parliament for more than 33 years and I feel that a body like the House of People cannot function without a minimum of cooperation from all sides and the basic understanding that we must all function within parliamentary norms and discharge our duties. I believe that now there are 39 parties and each party has its own different policies, programmes and priorities. Those views, as much as possible, should be allowed to be aired inside the House, and for that a basic attitude of cooperation and tolerance of each other is important. I feel it is important for members to listen to each other's view points. If one wishes to express one's opinion uninterruptedly, one should allow others to do the same. Attack other parties politically if you want, not personally. These things are known to our very honourable members.

I had never thought of occupying this position. There was never any expectation from my part, far less was it solicited. The offer came to my party in my name from the Congress. I did not decide anything. It was the Polit Bureau that decided that I should accept this position. But I am grateful to each and every party in the Lok Sabha as all the parties proposed my name and that there was no contest. It was a unanimous election. And the way they have been kind enough to express their felicitation and the way they assured their cooperation, I felt confident that in spite of occasional problems that may come up, Parliament would ultimately function in its full glory. That is my appeal to everybody - please cooperate. The people have sent us to the Lok Sabha with great hopes and aspirations. They are our real masters and we should discharge our duties in a manner which will meet with the approval of the people. The biggest satisfaction I can have is when people will point at the Lok Sabha and say that it is a responsible body that is working at taking this country forward and for solving the enormous problems of the people.

In your long parliamentary experience, has there been any such sustained campaign by the Opposition?

There have been several occasions in the past when for around 10 days Parliament could not function. This is not extraordinary. My request to all the honourable leaders from all sides is that just because such incidents have taken place in the past, it is not necessary that it should continue. We should try and avoid these kinds of situations as much as possible. Any confrontation which stalls the functioning of the House is absolutely unproductive.

The Opposition has complained that you are partisan. Your comments.

You see, my statement on this does not mean anything. I can only reply by my actions. Sushil Modi of the BJP said that I was behaving like a Polit Bureau member. But later he came to my room and said he was sorry and that he did not really mean it, and I should forget it. I think in the heat of the moment a lot of things are said; but my partisanship or non-partisanship will not depend on my statement, but my actions. I feel confident that this allegation is not correct. I can tell you that so far as the time that I give to my friends in the Opposition is concerned, it is the same as the time given to all the rest, whose strength is nearly three times that of the Opposition. Therefore this allegation is baseless, and I am sure it was not meant seriously.

What can be the solution to the present stalemate in Parliament?

As Speaker all I can do is to go on appealing to the members on this issue. It is a decision that has to be taken by the parties concerned. They reportedly said that, happily, they have no grievance against the Speaker; only against the ruling party. It is for them to solve the problem. If they want my help, I will do whatever I can.

Will not this kind of behaviour affect the public perception of Parliament?

As I said, it is very unfortunate. But I want to make one thing very clear, that it does not apply to any particular party or member. Parliament should function in a manner expected of it. Therefore I shall again, taking advantage of your publication, request to all the honourable members to take full part in the parliamentary proceedings and make their valuable contributions.

You have permitted telecast of Zero Hour and decided not to bar coverage of members when they disrupt proceedings. Do you think this will make members behave better?

This is a common misconception. All Parliament proceedings are telecast except the period called Zero Hour. Personally, I always felt, even when I was a member, that there was no reason why Zero Hour should not be telecast. I even spoke to the earlier Speaker on this issue. There are visitors in the gallery who are seeing the whole proceedings and there are newspaper reporters who are reporting them. So why should not this period be shown, especially when matters of public importance are raised by members? But the argument against it was that in the rules there is nothing called Zero Hour, and hence it should not be telecast. I did not agree with this, and I spoke to the honourable members, and they did not object.

You see, this is not to belittle any member. I believe that the people have a right to know. It is a very important medium through which people are made aware of what is happening in Parliament. So let them know what is happening. Even if there is disorder, people should know. Why give them the wrong impression? I have not said that the focus should be only on some members of some parties. I want the full picture of what is happening to be given. But whether this will have any good or bad effect on the conduct of the members is not my concern.

My concern is the people of India. They are our masters and they are entitled to know. The proceedings are meant to be held in open. But because of lack of space only a few can come and see. Besides, what is the purpose of the media? It is through the media that people will know what is happening. All I am saying is, along with the print media, let the electronic media also be allowed.

Your suggestion to throw open Standing Committee sessions to the media has not been accepted. Your comments.

There was no specific discussion on this. At one meeting I raised the issue, saying that I was thinking of allowing the press during the evidence part of the proceedings of the Standing Committees. But there was no agenda for discussion. Some honourable members expressed their reservation. I have not yet taken a final decision on this. Since there has been no formal discussion on this, it cannot be said that everybody has rejected it. Let us see what happens.

There were reports that you were planning to quit as Speaker and you have denied it.

I never said I was going to quit. I am not a shirker and I have no intention of running away. I said I was sad at all the events that happened. But I am an optimist and I hope that there will be no such occasion in the future. I know the Speaker's position is totally different from that of an active Member of Parliament, which I have been for so long. But it was a challenge and I have taken it up. So far, I have not got much job satisfaction from my present post.

Do you miss active politics?

Well, I have had a long innings in Parliament and in active politics and I cannot really say I am missing it. It is a different life now. I am not attending my party meetings, nor am I attending the central and State committee meetings. But it is not that I have given up my party or my political beliefs. My decision not to attend party meetings was a conscious one, so that people do not get the idea that I am following an active political life rather than discharging my functions as the Speaker in a non-partisan manner. The only thing is that the regular contact I had with the people is lost. But at the moment I am not at all keen to have an active political life, lest people misunderstand me.

Personally I do not have any problem. But, of course, I do maintain my own political beliefs and political faith and am proud to be a member of my party. Sometimes, unfortunately, wrong assumptions are made. So when I said I was sad, it was because of such events. Whether I continue in my post or not will depend on a lot of things. But if I find I cannot discharge my duties it does not mean I will run away. I will find another way of dealing with the situation. I sincerely hope that everything will be normal and I shall get the full cooperation of all the honourable members.

I have absolute confidence in myself and the fact that when I sit in the chair of the Speaker I shall do my best to fulfil my role in a manner that will not raise any doubts in anybody's mind. I am fully confident of that.

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