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Congress leaders claim BJP ‘destroying’ democracy by not appointing its MP as protem speaker: Here’s what the rules and Supreme Court say about the appointment

While traditionally, the seniormost and non-controversial member of the Lok Sabha is appointed as the protem speaker, this practice is based on convention rather than any statutory requirement. The simple idea is that a senior member would have the requisite experience and respect of the house to carry out the duties effectively.

On the 20th of June, Congress MP Jairam Ramesh lamented that seven-time MP and BJP leader Bhartruhari Mahtab has been appointed as the protem speaker of the 18th Lok Sabha instead of 8 term Congress MP Kodikunnil Suresh.

Taking to X, Jairam Ramesh attacked the Modi government alleging deviation from the tradition of appointing senior-most MP regardless of party line as the protem speaker.

“By convention, the MP who has served the maximum terms is appointed Speaker Protem for the first two days when oath is administered to all newly elected MPs. The seniormost MPs in the 18th Lok Sabha are Kodikunnil Suresh (INC) and Virendra Kumar (BJP), both of who are now serving their 8th term. The latter is now a Union Minister and hence it was expected that Kodikunnil Suresh would be the Speaker Protem. Instead, a 7-term MP, Bhartruhari Mahtab has been appointed Speaker Protem. He was a BJD MP for 6 terms and is now a BJP MP,” Ramesh posted.

Meanwhile, senior Congress leader KC Venugopal deemed the appointment of Bhartruhari Mahtab as protem speaker as an attempt at “destroying parliamentary norms.” Venugopal also invoked merit and seniority to attack the ruling dispensation for breaking the ‘unquestioned norm’.

“In yet another attempt at destroying parliamentary norms, Mr. Bhartruhari Mahtab (a 7-term MP) has been appointed the Pro-Tem Speaker, superseding Sh. @kodikunnilMP, who will be entering his 8th term. It is an unquestioned norm that the senior most MP presides over the proceedings of the House before the Speaker is duly elected. It is a matter of immense pride for our party that K Suresh, a leader from the marginalised section of society, has achieved this feat of being an 8-term MP. The government should explain why it chose to overlook K Suresh, what was the factor that disqualified him from this post? Are there deeper issues influencing this decision, perhaps beyond just merit and seniority?” the Alappuzha MP posted on Thursday.

What does the law say about the appointment of a Protem speaker?

The protem speaker of the Lok Sabha is a temporary position appointed to preside over the first meeting of the newly elected Lok Sabha. The official ‘Handbook on the Working of Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs’ mentions the appointment and functions of a protem speaker.

The president appointed Mahtab as the protem speaker under Article 95(1) of the constitution. This article states that when the post of speaker is vacant, the duties will be performed by the Deputy Speaker. And if the officer of Deputy Speaker is also vacant, the president can appoint a member of the house as the speaker. Thereby, as there are no speaker and deputy speaker of the newly elected Lok Sabha, the president named Bhartruhari Mahtab as the protem speaker. The job of the protem speaker is to administer the oath of the newly elected members, after which the members will elect a permanent speaker.

Also, there are other Constitutional provisions that indirectly touch upon the role of the protem speaker. These include Article 94: Concerning the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, Article 95: Detailing the absence of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, and Article 93: Mandates the Lok Sabha to choose two members to be Speaker and Deputy Speaker.

Moreover, Article 99 states “Every Member of the House shall, before taking his seat, make and subscribe before the President or some person appointed in that behalf by him, an oath or affirmation according to the form set out for the purpose in the Third Schedule of the Constitution.”

The primary duty of the protem speaker is to administer the oath of office to new members of Parliament and to oversee the election of the regular Speaker of the Lok Sabha. After the new Lok Sabha MPs are elected, a list comprising the names of the senior-most members of the Lok Sabha is prepared. The seniority is decided by total tenure as a member of the Lok Sabha. The President then appoints one of the MPs from the list who acts as the Speaker pro-tem, on the recommendation of the prime minister.

Some other members are also named under Article 99 to help the protem speaker in conducting the oath. This time, Lok Sabha members Suresh Kodikunnil, Thalikkottai Rajuthevar Baalu, Radha Mohan Singh, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Sudip Bandyopadhyay have been appointed for this role. Notably, while the handbook talks about 3 associates, this time 5 members have been named to assist the protem speaker.

“After the approval of the Prime Minister, the consent of these Members is obtained by the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, generally over the telephone. Thereafter, the Minister submits a note to the President (Annex II-C) seeking his approval to the appointment of the Speaker pro tem and the other three Members and also seeking the convenience of the President to the date and time of the swearing-in ceremony, the Handbook states.

The protem speaker is appointed by the President of India. The appointment of a protem speaker is usually made based on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet and is sworn in by the President before assuming the duties.

“The President administers the oath to the Speaker pro tem in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The other three Members appointed by the President to assist him in administering the oath/ affirmation are administered the oath/affirmation by the Speaker pro tem in the Lok Sabha. The Speaker pro tem then administers the oath/affirmation to the newly elected Members with the help of the three persons so appointed by the President…” the Parliament handbook reads.

While traditionally, the seniormost and non-controversial member of the Lok Sabha is appointed as the protem speaker, this practice is based on convention rather than any statutory requirement. The simple idea is that a senior member would have the requisite experience and respect of the house to carry out the duties effectively.

Is the ‘norm’ of appointing senior-most MP as protem speaker broken for the first time?

Interestingly, while the Congress party is upset over Kodikunnil Suresh not being appointed as the protem speaker, the so-called tradition of appointing the most senior member as the protem speaker was not followed in certain instances. For instance, in 1956, when Jawaharlal Nehru secured an easy second term, Sardar Hukam Singh was appointed to the post instead of the senior-most member. Similarly, in 1977, after the national emergency ended, D N Tiwari was appointed as the protem Speaker despite not being the most senior member of the House.

In the recent case of 2019, Virendra Kumar, a seven-term member of the Lok Sabha, was appointed as the pro-tem Speaker. It is worth mentioning that Maneka Gandhi, an eight-term member, held seniority in the previous Lok Sabha. Therefore, it is evident that the appointment of a protem speaker based on factors other than seniority is not unprecedented.

What the Supreme Court said on the appointment of protem speaker

Back in 2018, the Congress and its then ally JD(S) had moved the Supreme Court challenging the appointment of BJP MLA KG Bopaiah as the Protem Speaker of the Karnataka Assembly for the floor test since he was not the seniormost MLA. Justice S A Bobde, however, reminded the Congress party’s counsel Kapil Sibal of Balasaheb Vikhe Patil’s appointment as the protem speaker in 2004 when Congress-led UPA came to power even though Sis Ram Ola was the senior-most MLA at that time.

Another such incident discussed in the court at that time,  was when Pradeep Balmuchu was appointed the protem speaker of the Jharkhand assembly in 2005 even though Inderjeet Namdhari was the seniormost MLA.

Sibal although admitted that there is no rule that the seniormost leader has to be appointed the protem speaker, he asked the court to stop the BJP MLA appointed to post from taking up the floor test.

The triviality of Congress’s resentment

While seniority has often been a key factor, there have been instances where other considerations influenced the appointment. For instance, political dynamics, the need for neutrality, and the government’s preference have played roles in deciding the Protem Speaker. This flexibility allows for a pragmatic approach in selecting a suitable candidate who can efficiently handle the responsibilities, even if they are not the seniormost MP. It must be noted here that Bharturhari Mahtab is the first ever Lok Sabha protem speaker hailing from Odisha.

Given the temporary and procedural nature of the Protem Speaker’s role, the uproar seems disproportionate. Congress focus should be on the seamless functioning of parliamentary processes rather than on who holds this temporary position and also take look at its own past conduct. Moreover, since the appointment is at the President’s discretion, based on the advice of the Union Cabinet, political considerations inevitably come into play, which is a common aspect of parliamentary democracies. Congress being the grand old party should understand it better and find some real issues to criticise the government.

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