Room 46 in the West Bengal legislative assembly complex is called the 'Bejoy Kumar Banerjee Hall.' Few would recognise his name today but 38 years he made the headlines in every Indian newspaper. What he said and did in 1967 are relevant to the events of today.
The West Bengal of 1967 presented as confused a picture as the Goa, Jharkhand, and Bihar of today, no party having won a clear majority in the assembly election. Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee, leader of a group of Congress defectors, joined hands with the Marxists to form the United Front. The coalition ministry was involved in a running battle with Governor Dharam Vira from the first. It did not last very long, the exasperated governor kicking out the United Front to install the Progressive Democratic Alliance that was led by Dr P C Ghosh.
It was at this point that Speaker Bejoy Kumar Banerjee entered the picture. The Speaker refused to recognise the new regime, ruling it was the exclusive power of the House to make and unmake ministries. Efforts to do so behind the back of the assembly were, he declared, unconstitutional and invalid. The P C Ghosh ministry threw in the towel, there was a bout of President's Rule, and the Ajoy Mukherjee-led United Front returned in 1969.
Many think that politicians should be barred from becoming governors. It may interest them to know that Dharam Vira was no politician, he had been one of India's most distinguished civil servants, efficient and incorruptible. He was genuinely concerned about the deteriorating situation in West Bengal; the Ajoy Mukherjee ministry was so spectacularly incompetent that the chief minister once sat on a dharna outside Writers Building against his own government! But the Speaker was equally correct in upholding the authority of the assembly.
Both Dharam Vira and Bejoy Kumar Banerjee could legitimately claim that they were working in West Bengal's best interests. Nobody would buy that excuse from Governor S C Jamir, the former Speaker Vishwas Satarkar, and Speaker Pro-tem Francisco Sardinha. Does anyone think S C Jamir had no role to play in the fall of the BJP-led Manohar Parikkar ministry? Speaker Satarkar sought to counter this by disqualifying an MLA just before a crucial vote in the assembly.Finally, Speaker Pro-tem Sardinha stretched the powers of his post to the limit by ordering the ouster of an MLA from the BJP side.
The sad part is that it was actually politics as usual up to the point where Francisco Sardinha entered. S C Jamir is scarcely the first governor to be partial to one party. There are even precedents of a Speaker playing fast and loose with the rules. (The governor would have been justified in recommending President's Rule after Satarkar's timely disqualification of the pro-Congress Philip Neri Rodrigues.) But what the Speaker Pro-tem did was in a class of its own. It opened the door to manipulation on a different scale.
Every assembly -- even the Lok Sabha come to that -- starts proceedings with a Speaker Pro-tem being nominated. That nomination is the gift of the executive wing, not of the legislature. Imagine what might happen if other Speakers Pro-tem follow Sardinha to disqualify 'inconvenient' members. You could face a situation where an electoral verdict is overthrown before all the legislators have time to read the oath.
A governor serves at the pleasure of the President. A Speaker is elected by the legislature over which he presides, and he may be removed by its members. But who is to check abuse of power by a Speaker Pro-tem? Sitaram Yechury says the Left disapproves of all legislative problems being dumped into the judiciary's lap. In principle he is correct but who else can lay down the law to prevent the disgusting antics we saw in Goa?
The Supreme Court stepped in to tell Governor Syed Sibtey Razi that it was setting a date for the vote of confidence in the Jharkhand assembly. It told 'Chief Minister' Soren that he could not have one of his pets sitting there as a nominated Anglo-Indian member. I pray that it also lays down broad guidelines on the powers of a Speaker Pro-tem.
But what of those Speakers, properly elected and not serving pro-tem, who act as tools of the executive wing? The position of a Speaker were spelt out on January 4, 1642 when King Charles I came in person to arrest five MPs from the House of Commons. Not finding them, he asked the Speaker where they were. William Lenthall, famously replied, 'I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.' Speaker Bejoy Kumar Banerjee was man cast in the same iron mould; others, I am afraid, have been far more accommodating to the executive branch.
I recall something Dr Ambedkar said long ago. After pointing several perceived flaws in the Constitution, his interlocutor asked Babasaheb how long such a body of laws could last. He replied soberly, 'Good men can make even bad laws Work to the common benefit, but bad men will abuse even the best Constitution.' In the ultimate analysis, it is for us voters to see that only the best people get elected. If we are swayed by prejudice then let us resign ourselves to more Satarkars and Sardinhas.