The unanimous election of Sumitra Mahajan, the veteran BJP MP from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, as Speaker of the 16th Lok Sabha, is another tribute to our nascent democracy. That she is only the second woman speaker of the Lok Sabha also tells us the long way women have to go to claim their rightful place in the polity. The 71-year-old Mahajan, always softspoken, always well-mannered, is in her eighth term as a Lok Sabha member. Before that, she had been a member of the Indore Municipal Corporation and its deputy mayor. Given the fact that she has always conducted herself with remarkable dignity and grace, never joining the shouting brigade, or wilfully defying the Chair, it would stand her in good stead while conducting the proceedings of the House. Her unanimous election underlined the changed equations in the polity, with the BJP-led NDA being in a commanding position in and outside Parliament. Yet, it is expected that she would go to some extra length to accommodate the Opposition, which is badly fragmented and lacks a forceful voice. The cause of democracy is served well if the Opposition is allowed to have its say, regardless of its paucity of numbers in the Lok Sabha. A government enjoying a comfortable majority can afford to be generous towards the Opposition. Besides, listening patiently to the Opposition will help keep the confrontation in the House at bay. Mahajan, with her long experience as a dignified parliamentarian should use her power of quiet persuasion to counsel moderation on all sides of the House. The speeches felicitating her on her election last Friday indicated that she can expect the goodwill and cooperation of all groups. The leader of the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, while congratulating her expressed the hope that she would allow the Opposition to be heard freely. Indeed, while it is important to follow the rules of procedures, Mahajan would do well to be guided by common sense, which often serves as a better tool to run the House than all the rules and precedents contained in May’s book on Parliamentary Practice, widely considered the bible for conducting proceedings in all democratically-constituted legislatures. In this regard, her model should not be her predecessor, Meira Kumar. No. It should be either Purno Sangma or even further back, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, the fourth Speaker of a rather turbulent Lok Sabha. Unmindful of the rule book, both Sangma and Reddy managed to quell many a commotion in the House by allowing agitated members to have their say, thus cooling tempers all around. Any attempt by the ruling benches to assert their superior numbers in order to silence the voice of the Opposition should be resisted, particularly when letting off steam is a better device to restore order than to mechanically clamp down on recalcitrant voices in the name of order and discipline. The point is that the usually mild-mannered Mahajan should not hesitate to be a stern task master when the situation calls for her to use her common sense rather than to rely blindly on the rule-book.
At least, one thing she should resist, that is, mumbling helplessly, ‘Baith jayieey, baith jayieey,’ in a weak and girlish voice. Instead, she should wield the big stick when needed, but in no case should she come across as ineffective and helpless as her predecessor did, throughout the life of the 15th Lok Sabha. Also, she should not use her position to globe-trot, again something her predecessor had done with impunity. As the supreme custodian of the rights and privileges of the members, Mahajan ought not only be impartial but should be seen to be so. Her first test would come when she would be called upon to grant the formal status of the Leader of the Opposition to the leader of the Congress group in the Lok Sabha, though the party lacks the requisite numbers to claim it as a matter of right. That decision might set the tone for the relations between the ruling and the Opposition benches in the 16th Lok Sabha.