The Speaker from Amalapuram

Print edition : March 16, 2002

WHEN Ganti Mohana Chandra Balayogi died in a helicopter crash on March 3, he had come a long way from being a relative political lightweight who was elevated to the post of Lok Sabha Speaker in 1998. In just over three years as Speaker, he had earned a reputation for efficient, calm and dignified conduct even in trying circumstances. Colleagues in Parliament mourned his death as a loss to the institution; there were few who did not feel his passing as a deep personal loss.

Balayogi came to national prominence when he was literally airlifted from Andhra Pradesh to Delhi in 1998 amidst much political activity. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) to which he belonged had agreed to extend support from outside to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition that had emerged as the largest component of the newly constituted Lok Sabha. But there was a condition - that its nominee should be elected Speaker. Amidst speculation in which a number of contenders figured, Balayogi, the dark horse, emerged on top. There was a deadline to be met, in the matter of filing the nomination for the post, and he had to be rushed to Delhi from his constituency.

The unassuming and low-profile former chairman of the East Godavari Zilla Parishad had to face formidable odds to overcome his image of anonymity. In his short stint as Speaker, he endeared himself to all with his easy accessibility. He was instrumental in initiating a major effort to enforce parliamentary practices and norms. Under his stewardship, an All India Conference of Presiding Officers and Political Parties was convened in November last year. A code of conduct for legislators was adopted by the conference, which recommended temporary disqualification as a remedy for "grave misconduct". An instance of such unacceptable behaviour was the common practice of agitated members rushing to the well of the House to gain the presiding officer's attention.

Apart from being the first Dalit to occupy the office of Lok Sabha Speaker, Balayogi was also the first representative of a regional party to do so. He was also the first Speaker to die in office.

The cool and patient manner in which Balayogi conducted the House even in the most difficult situations earned him admiration. His objectivity and fairness were acknowledged even by Opposition parties. For instance, during the Budget session last year, when the Tehelka scam had broken and proceedings of the House were stalled for days together and it appeared as if the Budget would not be even discussed, let alone adopted, Balayogi reportedly threatened to quit unless he saw a more responsible attitude in all parties.

On February 28, which, as it happened, was his last day in office, the entire Opposition was up in arms over the Godhra incident and its violent aftermath in Gujarat. However, he ensured that decorum was restored in the House so that the Finance Minister could present the Budget. It was a measure of his farsightedness that even before the terrorist attack on Parliament House on December 13 took place, he had constituted an expert group to review the security arrangements inside the complex. Later Balayogi constituted a parliamentary supervisory committee headed by Deputy Speaker P.M. Sayeed to oversee the implementation of the report.

His impartiality was amply in evidence in 1998 in a matter involving stakes no smaller than the survival of the Central government. After the Lok Sabha had concluded its debate on a motion of confidence moved by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, there was a prolonged procedural wrangle over Congress(I) member Giridhar Gomang's eligibility to vote. Gomang, who was then the Chief Minister of Orissa, was yet to resign his membership of the Lok Sabha and seek membership of the State legislature. With no clear precedents to go by, Balayogi left the decision to the conscience of the individual concerned. And that proved to be decisive: Gomang chose to participate in the vote, which resulted in the Vajpayee government being defeated by one vote.

Later Balayogi was quoted as saying that it was "a very tough situation and a delicate matter to deal with, as legal luminaries and senior members were reading out legal provisions". He could not rule against an elected member's participation in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha. At the same time, he had to keep in mind the fact that Gomang's membership of the House was likely to cease at an early date. "I knew the decision I had to take would have a bearing on the parliamentary history of the country," he said. And in the circumstances, he thought it best to leave the decision to the sense of propriety of the member concerned.

Although relatively inexperienced when elected to the post of Speaker, Balayogi learnt on his job fast. To overcome the language barrier, he engaged tutors in Hindi and acquired a working knowledge of the language rather soon. His often halting, though sincere, efforts to communicate in Hindi with members from the North often gave rise to much mirth. It was a measure of the stature he had attained that he was unanimously elected for a second term as Speaker in 1999.

During his short tenure as Speaker, he travelled widely. He attended conferences of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter Parliamentary Union.

All through Balayogi's tenure, there was a steady stream of visitors from his constituency of Amalapuram to the premises of Parliament. He retained a close bonding with his home constituency. He was spoken of with high regard by his constituents, who mention his service especially for the cause of farmers. He is especially remembered for his exemplary actions during the oilwell blow-out in his constituency in 1995 and after the catastrophic cyclone that struck the following year. He was a calming influence in East Godavari district, which is prone to caste conflicts.

BORN into a farming family of rather modest means in 1951, Balayogi showed through his brief career how far a politician could go given a friendly disposition and the readiness to help. He practised at the Kakinada Bar before his entry into politics. He was appointed a magistrate in 1985 but soon resigned his job to return to the Bar. In the late 1980s, with the help of fellow advocate Yanamala Ramakrishnudu, who is now the State Finance Minister, he began active engagement with politics. He soon caught the eye of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao. He had served only one term in the Lok Sabha when he was elected Speaker.

It was often said of Balayogi that he could never decline a request made in good faith. He was due to attend a book release function in Hyderabad on March 3. However, he was persuaded to undertake a quick trip to West Godavari before that to attend a meeting organised by a group of Christian missionaries. He missed two trains to Hyderabad and was persuaded to leave by a helicopter from Bhimavaram. The fatal crash occurred 20 minutes after takeoff. The pilot of the helicopter, G.V. Menon, and Balayogi's personal assistant, Sati Raju, were also killed.

On hearing the news of the death, Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu rushed to the district headquarters town of Eluru and had the body shifted to Hyderabad. He reluctantly gave in to pressure to have the body shifted to Delhi for the ceremonial lying-in-state ceremony on Parliament premises. Chandrababu Naidu announced in the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly that the National Games 2002 village near Hyderabad and the Yanam-Edurlanka bridge over the Godavari river would be named after Balayogi. A suitable memorial, he said, would be constructed at Amalapuram, where the last rites were conducted. Balayogi is survived by his wife, son and three daughters.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor