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A surprise Speaker

Print edition : May 25, 2002 T+T-

The election of the Shiv Sena's Manohar Joshi as the Speaker of the Lok Sabha seems to indicate that irrespective of its allies' reservations, the BJP is bent on pursuing its own agenda.

"I WILL not be dictated by any remote control. I will try to be impartial in discharging my duties as Speaker... There should be no problem in this because my leader Balasaheb Thackeray has himself told me that since I have become the Speaker I should not take sides." Manohar Gajanan Joshi, the newly elected Speaker of the Lok Sabha was trying to explain, painstakingly, why he would not be remote-controlled by the Shiv Sena supremo. However, in the same breath he went on to thank Thackeray for making his elevation to the exalted post possible, despite his being a first-time member of Parliament. Here is someone who professes noble intentions of remaining unbiased while discharging his duties not because he thinks that would be the right thing to do but because that is what his leader has told him to do.

It is for the first time in India that a member of an extreme rightist party like the Shiv Sena, whose leader's views with regard to ideals such as secularism, pluralism and the rule of law as enshrined in the Constitution are no secret, occupies the post of the presiding officer of the country's highest democratic institution. Given its divisive agenda and the firm support that it has been getting from the Shiv Sena, it was no surprise that the Bharatiya Janata Party sneaked in Joshi's name for the prestigious post at the last moment. However, what came as a surprise was the conduct of the BJP's allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Opposition parties, which supported the BJP's proposal even without a token protest. The fact that the Speaker's post went to a Shiv Sainik soon after a heated debate on communalism in the context of Gujarat showed the BJP's allies and the Opposition in poor light. After bashing the BJP for fomenting communal riots in Gujarat, both the NDA constituents and the Opposition were forced to agree to the BJP's choice of Speaker.

The circumstances under which Manohar Joshi's name was proposed for the post of Speaker are themselves rather dubious. According to members of the Opposition as well as the allies of the BJP, the most probable candidates seemed to be Petroleum Minister Ram Naik and Culture and Tourism Minister Jagmohan. Apparently, no one had anything against these names. According to Congress(I) leaders as well as leaders of NDA constituents, though Manohar Joshi's name was there in the list of names that the BJP had shown to others, it was not quite in the reckoning. They said that they were made to believe that the choice was between Ram Naik and Jagmohan. However, after consultations, to everybody's surprise, the name that was announced was Manohar Joshi's. By then, it was too late for anyone to react, and even before the stunned BJP allies and Opposition parties could do anything the process of election had been set in motion. Joshi's nomination papers had been filed, and in order to honour the tradition of electing the Speaker on the basis of consensus, the allies filed several other sets of nomination papers in his support. The Congress, which was caught napping, decided not to propose or second his name, as a token of protest. However, in order to avoid setting a bad precedent, it decided to let him get elected unopposed. Other Opposition parties followed suit.

However, the Left was vocal in its protest. Both the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued strongly worded statements opposing the decision. Describing the Shiv Sena as a "rabid communal party", the CPI said that it was dissociating itself from the election. The CPI(M) said that it was a dangerous signal that the BJP had decided to choose somebody from the Shiv Sena for the post of Speaker, especially when Gujarat was still burning. "At a time when the entire country is seriously concerned about the ongoing pogrom against the minorities in Gujarat, the choice of Speaker from the Shiv Sena sends disturbing signals and will adversely affect the image of Parliament, which is a vital institution in a democratic system," a statement issued by the Polit Bureau of the CPI(M) said. It said that while the BJP had shown contempt for secular-democratic values, the allies were shown to be willing accomplices.

The biggest embarrassment, however, has been for the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which had lambasted the communal politics of the BJP in Gujarat and had demanded Modi's ouster. In the present situation, however, the TDP ended up seconding Joshi's name. This episode was a clear reminder to the NDA constituents that the BJP had set its agenda and that they were free either to toe its line or to walk out.

In this backdrop, while assuming charge as Speaker, Joshi, 65, has his job cut out. Joshi is the Shiv Sena's first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The post might provide the Shiv Sena a national profile. It may also provide the party the much-needed respectability. Joshi is the fifth Speaker to be elected in the middle of a term of the House and the second Speaker in the 13th Lok Sabha, as the post fell vacant following the death of G.M.C. Balayogi in a helicopter crash in March.

The Speaker's election holds some significant political signals too. There is no immediate danger to the NDA government from the TDP. Yet, the fact that the TDP opted to give up its claim to the Speaker's post underlines the gradual distancing of the party from the BJP. Significantly, on the day of the election, TDP leader and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was in New Delhi, reassuring the Prime Minister that the TDP's support to the NDA continued on an issue-by-issue basis. Although he made it clear that there was no immediate danger to the government from his side, there are signs of impending danger for the BJP- signals, which are being watched keenly by the Opposition. The Speaker's election is likely to prove to be a watershed in BJP-TDP relations.