Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, 58, tells Editor-in-Chief Ruben Banerjee and Political Editor Bhavna Vij-Aurora that the Constitution is the backbone of the country’s parliamentary democracy and no government can tamper with its core values.
Do you think democracy is still strong in the country?
Democracy is definitely strong. You can see that from the faith people repose in the democratic processes. From 1952 onwards, 17 general elections and 300 assembly elections have taken place, with the voting percentage going up. This goes into strengthening of our democracy.
Also, we have had a long journey of development in terms of education. Growing literacy has also contributed to it. When people become aware, and debate and discuss issues, they come out and vote in big numbers to choose their government. In the 17 general elections, governments have changed eight times. And the smooth way in which power changed hands shows the strength of our Constitution. It has clearly defined the roles of executive, legislative and the judiciary.
In a recent conference, vice president Venkaiah Naidu said there is an overreach by the judiciary. However, a lot of people believe the judiciary has actually abdicated its responsibility. What is your opinion?
When it came up in the conference, the subject under discussion was the ideal coordination between the legislature and judiciary to strengthen democracy. Everyone had to keep their views on the subject and so did the vice president. I believe that when the Constitution has defined everything clearly, it is important for everyone to work within their defined duties.
All three pillars should work in coordination and not violate their defined boundaries. This is going on well. If there is any debate, we sit together and discuss. The judiciary, even after the rules of Parliament have been laid down, has the right to judicial review. But then, judiciary cannot get into making laws as the executive cannot do the work of the legislature.
If people were not at the core of it, or India was not a democratic republic, then the executive would have started ruling. The Executive’s work in a democracy is simply to execute the decisions taken by the elected government as per laid down rules and processes.
The PM spoke about ‘Know Your Constitution’ at the conference. Do you think knowledge of the Constitution is essential?
It is a must. Our coming generations must know about the Constitution. I have observed that it is no more a part of the syllabus. Something like the Preamble should be memorised by everyone. In schools, it should be part of the morning prayer. We have decided that all presiding officers will talk to chief ministers in their state and put up the Preamble in all offices, schools and colleges so that people can read it. There is a need to start a campaign.
The Opposition is raising the issue time and again that RSS and BJP are trying to change the Constitution, make India into a Hindu Rashtra and remove the word ‘secular’ from the Preamble…
In India, nobody can change the Constitution. Whenever there has been an attempt to tamper with its core values, it has come under judicial review. In a democracy, if the Constitution’s core values have to be changed, then a majority in both the Houses, and at least half of all state assemblies, have to vote for it. It has been done to ensure no government becomes despotic. There are checks and balances.
There have been 101 amendments to the Constitution brought about by all governments as and when necessary for the benefit of the country. Some happened unanimously, some with division of votes. However, whenever the judiciary has believed that the amendment is against the core values, it has gone in for review. There are many judgments like the Kesavananda Bharati case (that set the principle that the Supreme Court is the guardian of the basic structure of the Constitution).
So, the ‘secular’ word will remain?
No one is changing the words of the Constitution.
The President has spoken about the three Ds—dissent, debate and decide. Do you think that these were followed in the case of the farmers’ bills in Parliament?
They were definitely followed. They were discussed for 5 hours and 32 mins even though four hours were allotted for it. Debate happened, so did dissent and then a decision was taken. Everyone took part in the debate. If the Opposition had asked for division of votes, we would have done that too. They just boycotted and walked out.
In hindsight, do you think the bills should have been referred to the select committee?
My job was to ensure discussion on the bills and I did that. The job of introduction of bills is done by the government.
There is increasing talk that space for dissent is being restricted…
There is dissent on all issues. In a democracy, it is the people who vote for a party, for an ideology and a manifesto. People vote for them (the party) to make laws for them and they do it. Dissent is the speciality of our democracy, but when there is a majority of a political party and its ideology that the people have chosen, the bill gets passed.
There is still room for dissent in India?
There is enough room for dissent. Our Constitution, when it was framed, provided for two sides—the government and Opposition. The Opposition should have an important role, but in a democracy it is up to the people how much support the Opposition gets. But there is space for dissent in the state assemblies and Parliament.
It’s okay theoretically but in practice, people, including journalists, have been jailed for dissent. It’s not just one or two, there are a lot of them, so an atmosphere is being created that there will be no space for dissent.
No matter which government is in place, every government has had dissent. Every government has seen dissent. Circumstances might change but I don’t think anyone has ever questioned the freedom of the press. The press is free to write.
Do you think that the press is free now?
The press is free. Writers are still writing with their own pens. They are writing what they are seeing. I see from my point of view, while you see from your point of view. No one can be stopped from writing.
Since BJP has a huge majority in Lok Sabha and the Opposition is weak, do you think it has an impact on parliamentary democracy?
Why is the Opposition weak? If you look in the context of the previous 16th and 17th Lok Sabha, the present Opposition numbers are higher by 22 members. It has been strengthened.
Do you think the Opposition should be stronger in order to keep a check on the government?
The public hasn’t made them strong, so what can be done? But I wouldn’t say they are not strong. They are adequately strong and put across their viewpoint.
Is there any possibility of an early Parliament session to discuss the farmers’ issues?
Parliament session is decided by Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs. It meets and sends us a proposal. So far we have not received it, but we are prepared for it.
Your responsibility as a presiding officer is a difficult one. Do you ever find it stressful? Have you ever lost your temper?
No, it’s not stressful. When you sit on that chair, your attempt is to be just and unbiased and give everyone adequate time and opportunity to speak. I have run the Lok Sabha till midnight. Last time also, amidst the Covid pandemic, the Lok Sabha worked till 10 pm and worked 38 hours extra. And the presence of MPs in the Lok Sabha was the same as it would have been during normal times.
I am thankful to all MPs who, even during these Covid times, discharged their parliamentary duties. Nothing could have been done without them. In the House, if everyone works together, our stress and challenges reduce. I think this session of the House had the least disturbance. We have increased productivity of the House. This time the House’s productivity was 167 per cent.