Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Vijay Kumar Sinha was on Wednesday elected speaker of the 17th Bihar assembly through a majority vote amid a furore caused by a viral audio tape in which Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad is purportedly trying to influence a BJP member to abstain from the vote.
Sinha, the candidate of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), polled 126 votes and RJDs Awadh Bihari Chaudhary, who was fielded by the opposition Mahagathbandhan, or Grand Alliance, won 114 votes in the House of 243 members.
Pro-tem speaker Jitan Ram Manjhi then urged chief minister Nitish Kumar and leader of the opposition Tejaswhi Prasd Yadav to escort Sinha to the speaker’s seat.
The election was overshadowed by the furore over an audio tape of a telephone conversation in which Lalu Prasad, in a prison in Ranchi in connection with the embezzlement of funds meant for the purchase of cattle fodder, is purportedly trying to persuade a BJP legislator to abstain from the vote. Former Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi shared the one-and-a-half-minute-long clip on his official Twitter handle.
“We will take good care of you. Just help us tomorrow in defeating the NDA’s candidate for the speaker’s post,” the voice purported to be Prasad’s can be heard saying in the audio.tape of the conversation with Lalan Kumar, who said he had accepted the call from the RJD chief when he was in a meeting with Sushil Modi and handed over the audio tape to him later.
Bihar minister Mukesh Sahni, founder of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), who broke his alliance with the RJD just ahead of the October-November elections and joined the NDA, said on the floor of the House: “Those who make calls to MLAs with the intent to topple a government have no right to speak of democratic norms.”
RJD’s debutant MLA Mukesh Raushan said: “You will see a big shakeup in March. This government will fall and Tejashwi Yadav will become the chief minister. Legislators from all parties are in touch with us. Just wait and watch.”
The speaker’s election didn’t lack drama either. As soon as the House assembled and the pro-term speaker initiated the election process, the opposition raised a ruckus, demanding a secret ballot that Manjhi rejected on grounds that there was no provision for a secret ballot on constitutional matters.
Manjhi called for a voice vote on the motion for the speaker’s election and announced his verdict in favour of the NDA candidate, but with both the ruling dispensation, comprising mainly the BJP and the Janata Dal (United), and the opposition (RJD, Congress and the Left), closely matched, the difference couldn’t be made out clearly. When the opposition objected, Manjhi called for a division of votes.
Opposition parties created another ruckus, questioning the presence of chief minister Kumar in the House; Kumar is a member of the Bihar legislative council, the upper house of the bicameral legislature. Opposition members trooped into the well of the House in protest.
Manjhi said only the members of the House would participate in the vote, but the presence of the chief minister was in his capacity of leader of the legislature and there was nothing wrong with him being in the House .
“I have been a member of the House for the last 40 years and there is nothing wrong with it,” he said.
The opposition was unrelenting, Tejashvi Yadav said: “They stole the mandate in 2015 and have again done it. Now, it is happening before the chair. It is a mockery of democracy.” Opposition members sat in the well of the House in protest.
Manjhi again read out the motion for election of Sinha as the speaker once again and asked those in favour to stand up to be counted. “If you have the numbers, go back to your seats and be counted. If you have the numbers, that will show,” he told the opposition, adjourning the House for five minutes after the count refused to satisfy the opposition. When the House reassembled, the pro-tem speaker again ordered those in favour of Sinha’s election to stand up and be counted.
Constitutional expert Subhash Kashyap said that there was nothing wrong in the presence of the CM in the House and the ruling of the speaker was paramount. “Such things have happened in the past also, but this is the first time such a demand has been raised. The leader of the House can remain present in the House. It appears clearly a political move,” Kashyap said.
(PTI contributed to this story)