Comrade Somnath Chatterjee may have forgotten but parliamentary records will show that he, as the then leader of the CPM Parliamentary Party, had made certain uncharitable remarks against the newly elected Speaker, Manohar Joshi. Alluding to Joshi'spolitical background who was elected on Shiv Sena ticket, Shri Chatterjee had vaguely hoped that Shri Joshi would rise above political considerations in running the House. Manohar Joshi, on his part, gave an extremely dignified response assuring the House that he would give full opportunities to all parties and groups to raise public issues and have their say in the House. He did live up to his promise. There were disruptions of proceedings and walkouts from the House during Shri Joshi'stenure but no one genuinely felt ? not to talk of saying it publicly ? that he was partisan or biased. He did emerge as one of the distinguished Speakers India had had. Although rated as one of the best parliamentarians, Comrade Chatterjee has the misfortune of being involved in one controversy after the other. The BJP has threatened to move a no confidence motion against the Speaker in the Monsoon session of Parliament. The motion may or may not be moved ? it was shelved every time the proposal was mooted at the BJP parliamentary party during the past two years ? but the fact remains that the Opposition is extremely unhappy with the conduct of the Speaker in and outside the House. That is a matter of concern for the smooth functioning of the parliamentary system as it is the joint responsibility of the Speaker, the Treasury benches and the Opposition to ensure that matters of public concern are debated and discussed on the floor of the House in a meaningful manner. Confrontationist approach helps no one and gravely hurts the public good.
The lack of unanimity in the House over the privilege committee report on former Secretary General Dr. Subash Kashyap'spunishment is a case in point. The issue pertains to certain remarks made by the distinguished constitutional expert that the committee concluded amounted to gross breach of privilege and contempt of the House. A resolution ?admonishing? Dr Kashyap was adopted by voice vote amidst noisy scenes and storming of the Well by the BJP members. The party took strong exception to short-circuiting the procedure and the refusal to accommodate notes of dissent by four BJP members of the committee. While the Opposition party'scase is that the committee? draft report circulated among members was ?changed? under pressure from the Left parties, the treasury benches maintain that opposition'sconcerns were taken care of. Merit of the case apart, the issue could have been resolved amicably if the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs had taken the BJP into confidence and made an effort to arrive at a consensus on how to deal with the alleged contempt of the House. The sharp division over the indictment of the former Secretary General has sent across the message that it was a partisan issue and has undermined the credibility of the punishment.
In a TV programme, Dr. Kashyap was asked to comment on rejection of Mamata Banerjee'snotice by the Chair and her throwing papers at the Speaker. He is reported to have said that there might have been a personal angel and went on to say that no one should forget that she had defeated a person of the stature of Somnath Chatrterjee to enter Lok Sabha for the first time. On a complaint from a CPM member, Hannan Mollah, the privileges committee found it to be a reflection on the impartiality of the Speaker. Dr. Kashyap'scase is that his remarks have been wrongly interpreted. He did say the incident might have a personal angle but that may also be interpreted to mean that Mamata'sanger against the Speaker had a personal angle. The former Secretary General stands by what he said namely that Mamata had defeated Chatterjee. He is prepared to pay the price for what he configures to be the truth. His brushes aside charges that he is close to the BJP and says he remains non-partisan. However, the fact remains that as a student of Allahabad University, he was an activist of the student'swing of the Congress party and had fought many an electoral battles with communists. He has all along been a target of the Communists, particularly the CPM.
BJP is angry with the Speaker for variety of reasons. It confronted the Speaker when the latter called a meeting of presiding officers of state assemblies to discuss Supreme Court'sorder on trial of strength in the Jharkhand assembly that frustrated the ruling party'sdesperate bid to install a minority government with the help of a partisan governor. The presiding officers of BJP-run states met separately to express their distress over Shri Chatterjee'srole in creating ?unwarranted? controversies and confrontation between the legislature and the judiciary. Again, the BJP was greatly upset when the Speaker refused to accept the court notices on MPs expulsion case. The Principal opposition party has other minor complaints against Comrade Chatterjee, including his going to the CPM office in Punjab and recently inaugurating a seminar at Delhi in which Nepalese Maoists were invited to articulate their demands. It is suspicious of the Speaker'sneutrality and is keen to move a no confidence motion against him. Before doing that, it needs to put its house in order. It should ponder as to why its members on the privileges committee didn'ttake the complaint against Dr. Kashap with the seriousness it deserved. Why were three of them absent from the meeting? And why the fourth signed the report without carefully reading it? What is at stake is not merely the reputation of an individual ? an eminent person, in this case – but the citizens? fundamental right to the freedom of expression. Is not a citizen of democratic India entitled to say what he perceives to be the truth even if it hurts some person holding a high office? More importantly, also involved in this case is the freedom of the Press. Can'tthe media ask experts their views on major issues of public interest? If experts were to be hauled up for their stray, and may be indiscreet, remarks in the heat of the moment, will it not lead to curbing the people'sright to know? The legislatures, like judiciary, will do well to become more tolerant of genuine criticism. Truth was no defence in cases pertaining to contempt of court till the recent Supreme Court judgment negated the archaic concept. Is truth still no defence in contempt of Parliament cases?