Opinion | Consensus Or Confrontation: How Will The 18th Lok Sabha Function?

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The scorching heat has somewhat abated, but monsoon clouds remain far from New Delhi. Stormy conditions are clearly discernible as the 18th Lok Sabha begins its session on June 24. Never before has the appointment of a Speaker Pro-tem, a conventional post replicated from the Westminster system, generated such controversy. The Opposition's objection to the appointment of Bhartruhari Mahtab, who has continuously served as a Lok Sabha member for seven terms since 1998, signals potential conflicts ahead.

Pro-tem is a Latin phrase meaning "for the time being". The term of the previous Lok Sabha Speaker ends a day before the new House is constituted. The President of India, under Article 95(1), appoints a senior member as Speaker Pro-tem, who is administered the oath by the President and tasked with the duties of the Speaker until a new Speaker is elected. Assisted by a panel of senior MPs, the Speaker Pro-tem administers the oath to new MPs, setting the stage for the election of a new Speaker. The oath administration is scheduled for July 24-25, followed by the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker as envisaged in Article 93 on July 26.

Consensus May Not Come Easy

Historically, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker have been elected by consensus. However, there are indications that the 18th Lok Sabha may witness contested elections for these posts.

Also Read | Who Is Bhartruhari Mahtab, The Pro-Tem Speaker For 18th Lok Sabha

The Opposition favoured Kodikunnil Suresh, a Congress MP from Kerala who has been elected eight times since his first election in 1989. The government argues that Suresh had lost elections in 1998 and 2004, unlike Mahtab, whose unbroken record of victories since 1998 spans seven terms. Mahtab, currently in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was a member of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the previous House. Suresh served as the Congress's chief whip in the 17th Lok Sabha. Additionally, Mahtab's father, Harekrushna Mahtab, known as 'Utkal Keshari', was Orissa's (now Odisha) first Chief Minister in 1946 and later served as Governor of the composite state of Bombay (now Maharashtra and Gujarat) in 1955-56.

Parliamentary Affairs Ministers In The Past

The primary responsibility for the smooth functioning of the Houses of Parliament lies with the ruling party, with the Parliamentary Affairs Minister assuming a key role. Notable figures such as Satya Narain Sinha, who set precedents for consensus building in his initial 18 years of service, and later, leaders like Ram Subhag Singh (the first recognised Leader of Opposition during the 1969 split), K. Raghuramiah (known for his consultations with Opposition MPs and dubbed the 'minister for Opposition'), Bhishma Narain Singh, Buta Singh, H.K.L. Bhagat, V.C. Shukla, and Ghulam Nabi Azad (who became LoP in Rajya Sabha and on whose retirement Narendra Modi's tribute created parliamentary history) served as the Parliamentary Affairs ministers during the Congress era.

Watch | "Will Protest BJP MP's Appointment As Pro-Tem Speaker": Congress' K Suresh

Pramod Mahajan was the first BJP leader to hold this post, navigating it well despite his party lacking a majority. He was followed by P. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, M.L. Khurana, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, and Ananth Kumar, preceding Narendra Tomar and Pralhad Joshi, whose tenures witnessed a diminished rapport between the government and Opposition benches compared to earlier times. Now, it's Kiren Rijiju, a member of the Lok Sabha since 2004 who began his career on the Opposition benches, who faces a daunting task as the Parliamentary Affairs Minister in the 18th Lok Sabha, where the ruling party is short of an absolute majority.

The LoP Question Facing The House

If an election is held for the post of Speaker, it may lead to acrimony. Unlike the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas, the 18th one will have a recognised Leader of Opposition (LoP). Although elected with much fanfare by his party a fortnight ago, Rahul Gandhi has yet to indicate if he will assume this key role. Sources within the Congress suggest he prefers Gaurav Gogoi, who served as Deputy Leader of the Congress in the previous House, for the position. His argument is that with Sonia Gandhi, a Rajya Sabha MP, serving as the chairperson of the Congress Party in Parliament (CPP), the BJP's criticism of 'dynastic politics' ('parivarwaad') against the Congress would gain traction if he were to become LoP. Sonia Gandhi reportedly wants Haryana MP Kumari Selja, a Dalit leader, to assume the role. Party chief Mallikarjun Kharge is inclined to support Chandigarh MP Manish Tewari, a third-term MP who has held key organisational roles and has demonstrated his legal acumen in House debates, should Rahul Gandhi decline. The name of fourth-term Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who unsuccessfully vied as India's candidate for the United Nations Secretary-General in 2006, is also doing the rounds in Congress circles.

Both the Speaker and the LoP will play pivotal roles in the smooth functioning of the 18th Lok Sabha. The LoP is a member of crucial selection panels where fostering a positive rapport between the government and the Opposition is essential. Acrimony arising from the election of the Speaker or the role of the LoP could cast a shadow, underscoring the importance of achieving consensus rather than confrontation.

The Opposition's Condition

The 17th Lok Sabha did not have a Deputy Speaker. Article 93 stipulates that two members of the Lok Sabha will be elected as Speaker and Deputy Speaker. According to Article 94, if the Speaker wishes to resign, they must tender their resignation to the Deputy Speaker. During the Constituent Assembly debates, there was deliberation over whether the Speaker's resignation should be addressed to the President of India; it was decided that since the House was the appointing authority, the power to accept the Speaker's resignation should lie with the Deputy Speaker. Thus, the 17th Lok Sabha had an anomaly, with the position remaining vacant.

The Opposition has conditioned the consensus on the election of the Speaker in the 18th Lok Sabha on the Deputy Speaker position being given to a non-ruling alliance member. The upcoming week is crucial, as whether consensus evolves or confrontation ensues will shape the functioning of the Lok Sabha in the days ahead.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired editor and a public affairs commentator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author