Speaker, Court and the Parliamentary Democracy in India

I. Introduction

In recent times, the Speaker’s Office has come under scrutiny in maintaining the tenets of parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy builds upon the free and fair electoral process. People of India have reposed absolute trust in the democratic values by whole-hearted participation during the election. Unfortunately, some post-election developments create an environment of mistrust amongst the people on the righteousness of the electoral system. The ongoing crisis in the Rajasthan is a testimony of such distrust.

Besides numerous political questions in Rajasthan, the Speaker’s decision has raised a substantial constitutional question on the nature and power of the Speaker’s Office. Whether the decision, to serve the show-cause notice to the disgruntled members of the ruling party, taken by the Speaker partakes the partisan character of the Office of the Speaker? What shall be the role of the Speaker in a situation of political uncertainty? The paper focuses on the power and the function of the Speaker in India, along with a reference from the practice in Britain. The work does not examine the ongoing issue of the decision of the Speaker of Rajasthan Assembly on merit. It limits only the expectations from the Office of the Speaker based on the learning of the British practice and the power vested therein and the justification of the judicial intervention.

II. History and Evolution of the Office of the Speaker

The Office of the Speaker owes its origin to the development of the institution in Britain. In the early days, the Speaker’s role in the British Parliament was that of an agent to the Crown. The Speaker served as an interface between  Parliament and the Crown. The Speaker’s role got redefined when the nature of  Parliament changed from that of an appointed body to an elected representative.

Speaker Lenthall described the nature of his Office to King Charles II in 1642: “I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.”

The Cabinet form of Government in the late 17th century under King William III further changed the nature of the speakership. Speakers started associating themselves with the ministry and often held other government offices. Robert Harley served simultaneously as Speaker and as a Secretary of State between 1704 and 1705. Later, Arthur Onslow (Speaker 1728-61) had initiated the process of distancing the Office of the Speaker from the government. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was the norm that the Speaker should be above party politics. Over a period of time, there has been a transformation in the functioning to ensure the neutrality and impartiality in the functioning. The Speaker needs to resign from the political party on being elected and withdraw from active politics after completing the tenure.[1]Although elected under a political party label and functioning as an elected Member of Parliament representing the interest of constituents, the Speaker is expected to operate with complete impartiality.

During colonial rule, the Governor-General was presiding Central Legislative Council. The Governor-General nominated Sir Frederick Whyte, a former member of the British House of Commons as the first President of Central Legislative Assembly in 1921. The first Indian to preside over the President of the Central Legislative Assembly’s Office was Shri Vithalbhai Patel in1925. Though Speaker’s title came in only with the gaining of independence, the Presiding Officer’s institution is thus somewhat older, dating back to 1921.

III. Significance of the Office of the Speaker in India

Prime Minister Nehru had said, “The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House the freedom of the House and because the House represents freedom and liberty. Therefore it is right that, that should be honored position, a free position and should be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality”.[2]

Though the Constitution provides for the Speaker’s method of election, a healthy convention has developed to elect the Speaker unanimously by the House. On the power of the Speaker, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha G. B. Mavalankar, aptly said that ‘in the whole setup of a parliamentary democracy, the Speaker is the only autocrat, meaning thereby that his exercise of authority requires no previous consultation of concurrence of anybody and the authority is unchallengeable’.[3] The statement of the first Speaker tacitly acknowledges the unfettered power entrusted upon the Office. The plausible reason for unwritten power relates to the extensive function assigned on the Speaker. It is imperative to say that the office-holder needs to be highly cautious in exercising power. Any exercise of power that would have smacked of suspicion must be rejected on account of the responsibility to preserve democracy entrusted on the Speaker.

Based on the constitutional provisions, Rules of Business of the House, and the Conventions, the Speaker’s powers and functions can be divided into four broad categories which can be to (a) run the business of the House, (b) administrative action, (c) quasi-judicial and (d) other functions. The Speaker facilitates the business of the House, ensures equitable participation of every stakeholder during the discussion, decides on the motions moved by the members, assists the members to hold the executive accountable, plays the role of a disciplinarian by suspending/terminating the member or ask them to withdraw from the House, adjourns the House, expunges the unparliamentary statements and decides on the nature of the Bill. On the administrative side, the Speaker heads the Lok Sabha Secretariat, exercises power over a number of Parliamentary Committees such as the Rules Committee, the Business Advisory Committee, and the General Purposes Committee, and nominates the chairman of various committees in place. In the quasi-judicial role, the Speaker decides on the issue of defection of the members from the political party which influences the composition of the House and the formation/continuation of the government.[4] While deciding the defection matters, the principles of natural justice will guide the exercise of power on the procedural aspect. On the substantive aspect, the Speaker should be guided by the absence of arbitrariness and the inherent characteristics of impartiality.

In addition to this, few other powers are vested in the Speaker which includes the power to exercise a casting vote, to resolve a deadlock over a particular matter. That is, when the House initiates a voting procedure, he does not cast a vote in the first instance but shall have and exercise a casting vote in the case of an equality of votes.[5] Thus, it makes his position as impartial as in the English system of democracy.

IV. Parliamentary Democracy and Partisanship

In England, the Speaker’s independence is ensured by a number of conventions and rules of procedures. Most of these have been adopted in India also either in the Constitution or rules of procedure of the House of people. Thus, as in England the salary and allowance of the Speaker are charged from the consolidated fund.[6] His conduct cannot be criticised except on substantive motion or upon resolution for removal.[7] He doesn’t cast a vote except in the case of a tie.[8] He can be removed only by special resolution.[9] However, the exercise of the power by the Office of the Speakers presents a different narrative.

The practice of partiality goes back to the first Lok Sabha when the first Speaker of the House disallowed an adjournment motion brought in to discuss the lathi-charge by policemen in Manipur. He also refused to give up the membership of the political party to which he belonged after getting elected as a Speaker.[10] In 2004, Somnath Chatterji refused to include the Railway Minister’s name in the resolution passed by the opposition in the aftermath of a train accident.[11] Instances of deliberate delay in deciding the disqualification matters of the members in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka also raised the proprietary’s question on the constitutional design of making the Speaker the sole arbiter in the matter of the disqualification.

The continued affiliation with the political party by the Speaker lies at the bottom of the problem. The problems of partisanship arise because of the structural issues regarding the appointment and tenure of the Speaker.[12] Though the Speaker represents the House but he also continues to represent his constituency. Again, he looks forward to contesting the election from the same constituency, which depends upon the permission from the political party’s leader.

The convention of Speakers resigning from their party membership has not developed in India. A reason for this is that the Speaker’s re-election to the House is not assured. All political parties campaign in the constituency of the Speaker. Even after re-electing to the House, the Office of the Speaker is still open for elections in India. Thus, an electoral system and conventions have not developed where the Speaker can forego his membership, thus he is bound to retain party membership. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the only parliamentarian who resigned from the political party after becoming Speaker of the Fourth Lok Sabha.

In the United Kingdom, political parties generally do not field candidates against the Speaker during general elections.[13] During the election the Speaker stands as a Speaker seeking re-election and does not campaign on a political issue. There is a presumption if re-elected to the House he would continue as the Speaker, unless he shows an unwillingness to do so.[14]Also, in Britain, the Speaker refrains from taking the post of Minister after demitting the Office.

The broad power and function of the Speaker expects fair and reasonable decision to strengthen the parliamentary democracy. The Speaker is the custodian of the practices that infuses life in democracy. With or without explicit text in the Constitution, the Speaker shall be bound by all such values that deepen the trust of the people in the functioning of the democracy.

V. Conclusion

In the recent matter of the Speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly, the judicial intervention must be examined in the light of the discussion made. It is not only the procedural aspects but also the substantive element of the decision-making that requires the approval of the constitutional principles. Needless to say, the issuance of the show- cause notice falls in the category of the decision-made by the Speaker. Thus, the judicial scrutiny is warranted in a situation of the allegation of partisanship in arriving at a decision. The constitutional status entrusted upon the Speaker would not refrain the court from examining the evidence he arrived at the interim/final decision. In the absence of the adoption of the convention on non-partisanship developed in the United Kingdom as a part of the constitutional law, the action/inaction of the Speaker will be rightly examined by the court of law without dishonoring the mandate of Article 122 of the Constitution. Otherwise, the ideals of the parliamentary democracy will be held hostage to the culture of high command. Until the Supreme Court’s suggestion to insulate the Office of the Speaker form the political pressures through a constitutional amendment is not met (Nariman, J. in Manipur Legislative Assembly case[15] judicial review to preserve parliamentary democracy satisfies the principles of constitutionalism.


*Associate Professor, Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. Author can be reached at uday@iitkgp.ac.in

[1] National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Presiding Officers: Speakers and Presidents of Legislatures (https://www.ndi.org/files/031_ww_presiding_0.pdf).

[2] D. D. Basu, Commentary on the Constitution of India, Vol. 4, (8th Edition  2008)

[3] H. Chand, Power of Speaker, Seminar on Constitutional Development since Independence, Indian Law Institute, New Delhi (1973).

[4] Tenth Schedule, Constitution of India, 1950.

[5] Article 100(1) of Constitution of India

[6] Article 112(3)(b),  Constitution of India

[7] Article 94(c) Constitution of India

[8] Article 100(1), Constitution of India

[9] Article 94, Constitution of India

[10] Harsimran Kalra, Decisional Analysis And The Role Of The Speaker, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy 2013

[11] NDA passes resolution against ‘partisan’ Speaker (2004),(http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2004-12-21/news/27403375_1_nda-leaders-lok-sabha-opposition-alliance)

[12] Id., note 10.

[13] House of Commons, Office and Role of Speaker, UK Parliament. (http://www.parliament.uk/business/commons/the-speaker/the-role-of-the-speaker/role-of-the-speaker/)

[14] Ibid

[15] Keisham Meghachandra Singh v. Manipur Legislative Assembly,  2020 SCC OnLine SC 55

One comment

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    What happened in Rajasthan is a continuous madness exercised by indian politicians throughout, very simple example, consider Indian Parliament you have a ruling party and an opposition party plus other parties, this is called democracy and no body complains that indian parliament should only have ruling party alone. Similarly, in any party, say congress in this case, ruling group of MLA’s follow Gehlot and back bencher’s so called in England follow Sachin Pilot. It is not democratic to say that, Gehlot wants all the MLA to support him with in congress party and any dissenter will be called defector’s and be thrown out of the party.

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