Questioning ‘Question Hour Speaker’ as Om Birla eyes second innings

Lok Sabha Chamber when PM Narendra Modi took oath as member of the House

Image credit X @Kirenrijiju

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Lensing Om Birla’s track record as Speaker of 17th Lok Sabha

By Manish Anand

New Delhi, June 26: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Kota in Rajasthan, Om Birla, is all set to win the election on Wednesday for the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker’s post.

If not for a last-minute course correction by the Congress, Birla will face an election for the fourth occasion after failing to get the consensus support. For five years, Birla was the Speaker of the 17th Lok Sabha.

Birla toiled hard to run the proceedings of the Lok Sabha with an enthusiasm of a neo-convert. The BJP had not provided him the support of the Deputy Speaker.

The Lok Sabha secretariat personnel claim that Birla lacks the ability to hide his emotions. His face reveals all.

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Birla checked his ‘asans’ on International Yoga Day at the newly-built ‘Prerna Sthal’ in the parliamentary complex. Statues of all the icons of the Indian history have been relocated to Prerna Sthal.

“I will come again to inspect on July 3,” Birla told accompanying staffers of the Lok Sabha secretariat on June 23. The staffers knew that he is returning to the Speaker’s post.

Around the same time, a journalist with over a decade of covering the Lok Sabha proceedings pleaded with fellow media persons to request the new Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, to amend the Covid-induced restrictions.

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Despite wealth of experience, he didn’t know that the Covid-induced restrictions on the media presence in the Lok Sabha Press Gallery doesn’t have the authorship of the minister. No institutions in India or abroad may still be carrying the Covid-time restrictions.

But the Lok Sabha secretariat still carries on with the Covid-time restrictions for the media presence. The Rajya Sabha returned to the pre-Covid system of issuing media passes two years ago.

While he completed his tenure as the Chair of the 17th Lok Sabha, the media gave Birla the description of ‘Question Hour Speaker’. The MPs of the ruling party hailed Birla for raising issues of their respective parliamentary constituency within the limit of one-minute.

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Parliamentary standing committees work as extra layers of legislative checks on the executive. The established norm of parliament called for Opposition leaders to be chairpersons of the standing committees.

But lesser legislative bills were sent to the parliamentary standing committees under the watch of Birla. The Lok Sabha had referred just little over 17 per cent of bills to the standing committee till 2023.

This amounted to turning the parliamentary standing committees impotent. The 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) had referred 71 per cent of the bills to the parliamentary standing committees. On the watch of Sumitra Mahajan (2014-19), just about 25 per cent of the bills were sent to the standing committees.

“This mini parliament. How can you take it lightly? The standing committee helps in efficient functioning of parliament,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, former Union Minister, had shouted at an official for arriving late for a meeting of the committee. Prasad headed the committee during the UPA tenure as an Opposition leader.

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“The Chair should ensure that Opposition has its say, while the government has its way,” says parliamentary convention.

But the 17th Lok Sabha on the watch of Birla invited a wider criticism for reducing the space for the Opposition to speak. The treasury benches sometimes crossed the limits of decorum with impunity.

Forner BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri rained abuses, including religious slurs, on the then Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP Danish Ali, representing the Amroha parliamentary constituency from Uttar Pradesh. The abuses would have outclassed the skills of street urchins.

The Lok Sabha failed to take any action against Bidhuri. The BJP, aware of embarrassment, dropped Bidhuri from the Lok Sabha elections, and assigned him organisational responsibilities.

The media generally stays away from critiquing the Lok Sabha Speaker, for fear of the discretionary powers with the Chair.

True democratic spirit should have mandated a debate in the lower House of parliament ahead of the election for the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker along with an edge of the sword scrutiny of the Chair in the preceding five years.

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