Speaker ought to be above the fray | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 15, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 15, 2008

Ground Realities

Speaker ought to be above the fray

JAMIRUDDIN Sircar was passionate in his defence of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party a few weeks ago. That was quite natural, given that the BNP has been his political base for as long as anyone can recall. It is in his interest, and in the interest of other BNP-wallahs, to be reassured about the party's future, especially as a party of government, when the general elections take place.
What Sircar did not quite remember, or deliberately put aside, was the bigger reality of which he is the focal point. He is speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad; and because he is, he is the guardian of the House. Perhaps it will not be too far wrong to suggest that speakers are the fathers of parliaments, wherever those parliaments happen to be.
And that position raises the level of the man -- or woman -- occupying it to a considerable extent. While a president or prime minister or leader of the opposition can afford to be partisan in his or her everyday political dealings, the speaker cannot. For when he is elected to that position, by the votes of all the other members of the august body, he assumes a new mantle, one which raises him to a pedestal he does not share with any other individual either inside Parliament or outside it.
The bottomline is, therefore, plain for all to see: by so openly calling for a check on political forces other than the BNP, by asking people to make sure that the BNP returns to power at the next election, Jamiruddin Sircar did the office he occupies a huge disfavour. And when some leading politicians of the Awami League, including former speaker Abdul Hamid, drew the conclusion that Sircar had by his act lost his neutrality as presiding officer of the Jatiyo Sangsad and therefore ought to resign, they were not too far wrong.
Of course, Sircar was not ready or prepared to do any such thing. He did something else, which was to defend his comments and even enlighten the country with the thought that speakers can and do have all the right in the world to speak for the political parties they identify with.
That assessment of a speaker's job by Jamiruddin Sircar does not bode well for the future of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. And it does not because we have indeed had speakers before him who have done a better job of providing leadership to the Jatiyo Sangsad. Those men have not caused eyebrows to be raised in a carrying out of their responsibilities.
Shamsul Huda Chowdhury, Sheikh Abdur Razzak and Abdul Hamid were men, even as they presided over Parliament, inextricably linked to the principles of the parties they belonged to. In the House, though, they looked neither to the left nor to the right (to paraphrase the late Charles de Gaulle) but remained above. And that is precisely what a speaker is expected to do -- and not just inside Parliament.
As long as an individual remains speaker, it becomes his or her moral responsibility to inform the nation (and buttress that information all the way) that he or she has moved beyond party, beyond the partisan divide and on to a higher plane of thought and activity.
There are the instances from across the world to mull over. Balram Jakhar, despite being a member of the Congress and a former minister in the Indian government, went on to do a creditable job as speaker of the Lok Sabha. And then there was Shivraj Patil, whose handling of the proceedings of the Lok Sabha has been above board. Neither of these men has made people feel uncomfortable with their words or deeds, for they demonstrated extraordinary care in doing their jobs.
No one questioned their integrity as speakers, just as no one raised any suspicions in the pre-1971 Pakistan days when Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan and Abdul Jabbar Khan, both esteemed Bengalis, served as speakers of the National Assembly. They were not spotted addressing meetings of the ruling Convention Muslim League; and at no time during their stewardship of Pakistan's Ayub-era parliament did they espouse a partisan cause.
There would hardly be any point in drawing on the example of the British parliament. Even so, with the best of parliamentary traditions being a legacy of British politics, it becomes necessary to remind ourselves that there are conventions and mores that simply cannot be wished away.
Jamiruddin Sircar may think he has done no wrong by speaking up for his party even as he has remained cloaked in the attire of the speaker of the Jatiyo Sangsad. But neither Betty Boothroyd nor her predecessors and her successor accepted that kind of situation as objective reality.
As speaker, Boothroyd lived up to popular expectations and political convention, was a stern schoolmistress who never failed to chide those under her guardianship when they went astray. It was a legacy she was building on, a tradition that had developed down the ages. In Bangladesh, you do not have to go far to look for an example of a good speaker.
Following the death of Humayun Rashid Chowdhury, and till the general elections of October 2001, Abdul Hamid did a healthy job of keeping the Jatiyo Sangsad in working order. He was scrupulous in his behaviour and not once did he give the opposition, which was the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, reason to question his qualifications for the job.
Things might be different in the United States, where Nancy Pelosi periodically flails away at President George W. Bush. But that has not chipped away at the authority she wields as speaker of the House of Representatives, for she has made sure that no Congressman finds a cause to bring her conduct of the House into ill repute.
There are the stories of some of her predecessors. Sam Rayburn in the 1950s, John McCormack in the 1960s and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill in the 1980s enhanced their standing, and that of Congress, by their judicious handling of the business of the House. Not even Newt Gingrich is on record with any statement that could have undercut his role as speaker of the House of Representatives in the Clinton years.
And so we have the historical record before us. Beyond and above that, it is conventions and traditions that underpin the working of democracy. Much as Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar may defend his recent partisan pronouncements, the truth is that there are certain offices of the state that must remain -- and do remain -- above the political fray.
We do not expect the president of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, the chairman of the Public Service Commission, the chiefs of staff of the armed forces, the inspector general of police, the vice chancellors of universities, the chief justice and other judges of the Supreme Court and High Court to put themselves in a straitjacket through their personally preferred political beliefs.
And we do not because all these individuals have around them a mantle that speaks of their being representatives of the republic. And that mantle is also the speaker's, for the speaker upholds an institution where the elected representatives of the people articulate the aspirations of the masses. When the speaker abdicates that responsibility, it is confidence and trust in the office of the speaker that goes through a steep decline.
Jamiruddin Sircar does not plan on resignation from the office of speaker. It will be interesting to see him swear in a new Jatiyo Sangsad once the promised elections are behind us.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. E-mail: bahsantareq@yahoo.co.uk.

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