In his inaugural address at an annual conclave of the presiding officers of Parliament and various state legislatures, President Ram Nath Kovind made a series of significant points — which may appear cliched, but are central to the functioning of any democracy. He underlined that dialogue was essential to ensure that debates did not become disputes. He said that the role of the Opposition is essential in a parliamentary system along with that of the ruling party, and harmony and cooperation between the two is important. And he told the presiding officers that it was their duty to create an enabling atmosphere for debate with impartiality, righteousness and fairness.
The president’s remarks assume additional importance because of two disturbing trends in the democratic system. The first is a function of the deeply-polarised nature of Indian democracy and politics at the moment. Political competitors see each other as enemies, the room for cooperation between the Treasury and Opposition benches on even issues related to national security has shrunk, and the trust deficit is at an all-time high. All of this has had an impact on the functioning of legislatures across the board, reducing their efficacy as a platform to refine laws and policies through deliberation. So when the president says that dialogue is essential, both sides need to work together, and presiding officers should create conditions for it, it has a contemporary relevance that’s hard to miss for political actors.
The second disturbing trend is of partisan presiding officers. This has been clear in states, where a ruling party or alliance is facing a challenge from the Opposition on whether it enjoys the confidence of the house. In such a scenario, the speaker of the assembly has to take decisions on a range of issues — from disqualification of legislators who may be switching ranks to timing of a confidence or no-confidence motion, among other issues. This should be done on the basis of existing rules, but often, the decision of the presiding officer is dictated by the past political allegiance of the functionary. This, then, raises questions about impartiality and erodes the legitimacy of the institution. The fact that these allegiances also come into play in the everyday functioning of the legislatures doesn’t help. So when India’s biggest constitutional functionary suggests that presiding officers must be fair and just, they may want to heed the advice in letter and spirit.