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Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee is one of the most experienced parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha. The veteran Communist Party of India-Marxist leader has spent 37 years as the people's representative.
After he was unanimously elected Speaker when the United Progressive Alliance government came to power, Chatterjee has had a tumultuous tenure.
Known as a stickler for rules, Chatterjee has had many run-ins with MPs. However, Chatterjee is most conscious of the fact that the image of Parliament is not sullied by unruly scenes in the House.
He speaks to Aditi Phadnis and D K Singh on his trials and tribulations.
Midway through your tenure as the Lok Sabha Speaker, how challenging are you finding your job?
The job is extremely important. Parliament is the institution through which you bring changes; it is not just laws, you discuss people's issues. Unless this institution is free from imperfections in its composition and direction, what will be the future of the country?
How far is our credibility with the people! In general perception, undesirable people -- those getting into jails, facing criminal or corruption charges -- are entering it (Parliament), and we waste people's money. Nobody says you are doing good work. Although people have faith in the institution, they are not happy with its functioning. The picture given to the people through the media is also not very laudatory. It is only one side of the picture.
Tell us something about your experience as Speaker.
I felt once or twice, enough is enough. Let me get out of it.
Really... when was it?
When I was charged with partisanship (in a controversial letter written to him by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last August), I felt why I should be here; I am happy facing the Chair than sitting on it. But then my friends came and said, 'The House has elected you unanimously.'
Who was the most persuasive? Did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh intervene?
Yes, he rang me up. But I don't want to say anything on this.
Did Vajpayee speak to you later?
He came here (to the residence) to meet me. But I am not going to say anything against any party.
Coming to your concern about the general perception about parliamentarians, how do you propose to change it?
Image correction is important. Out of 545 members, 500 plus people have nothing against them. We should keep that in mind. I have tremendous faith in the system.
There has been a lot of debate on whether a chargesheeted person should be allowed to contest election. What is your opinion?
As a lawyer, I do not agree. After all, full opportunity has to be given for trial. Given the impression about undesirable elements, political parties have to be careful. It would be better if a parliamentarian should be somebody against whom nobody should be able to point a finger. At the same time, there are some motivated complaints also.
There is a general perception about Parliamentary Standing Committees being ineffective because the government of the day can and does ignore their recommendations. Would you like their recommendations to be binding on the government?
No, not binding. But I would like the government to give good reasons for not accepting them. I have asked ministers to submit half-yearly reports on their action on the findings and suggestions of the standing committees. But, sometimes, it may be difficult for the government to accept them. Parliamentarians may have one point of view, while the government may think differently.
Powers of Parliament vis-�-vis those of the judiciary have been a matter of debate, of late. What are your views on it?
I am happy you used vis-�-vis, and not versus. I am very conscious and firm. Whatever, my rights should not be given up. On the Jharkhand issue (when the Speaker had questioned the Supreme Court's interim order on Shibu Soren's swearing in as chief minister in March 2005), when I had given my opinion, it had just happened. I had just said don't come into the arena of presiding officers. The Constitution is very clear. Nobody said I was legally wrong. It is my feeling that the legislature's importance should not be minimised. If the judiciary does not function, who will function in its place! There are one crore outstanding cases. You can ask why so many cases pile up. They have to find methods of dispensing them. Parliament has no powers to appoint anybody in judiciary. I am not saying it in a belittling sense. Everybody's power is delineated in the Constitution. There are sufficient observations on this issue by Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar during the Constituent Assembly debates. You cannot legislate. You cannot supplant representatives of the people. Who understands people's rights more?
What about the Supreme Court's recent ruling relating to the Ninth Schedule?
What is the basic structure? What should it be? Who is most equipped to come to this conclusion? Who has the pulse of the people? Judges are on the ivory tower; they are detached from the people. On many political issues, parties take sides. For instance, on the reservation issue, different parties have different perceptions. On what basis can a court come to a perception? What percentage of reservation -- 69 or 50 or 40? Court will decide what is fair! 545 members take a decision; five or nine judges take a different decision. These questions arise. How do you decide what is good for the people? I have very high respect for the judiciary. These are the issues which may be relevant. The Supreme Court says since the executive is not functioning, it has to enforce the law. That is not the job of the SC. They (courts) cannot take affirmative action.
Please share some of your experiences during your long stint in Parliament (completing 37 years this March).
The most traumatic period was during Emergency. I spoke against it. I was in hiding for a few days under direction of my party. My passport was impounded. We did not get copies of speeches. Nothing was allowed to be published. Nothing circulated. The entire atmosphere was traumatic.
Do you miss politics?
I am de-politicised now. I have no contact with my party. Yes, I am missing politics. Elections come and go... I don't take part in it.
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