Op-Ed: The ‘Whisper’ That Runs the Odisha Assembly

The cat is out of the bag. The worst kept secret of the august house called Vidhan Sabha came tumbling out of the hallowed precincts of the Odisha Assembly on Tuesday evening when two leading channels – OTV and News 7 – ran a story on how Parliamentary Affairs minister Bikram Keshari Arukh and the honourable Speaker Mr. Pradip Amat were visibly acting at the whispering behest of Assembly secretary Amiya Kumar Sarangi. The visuals and the audio aired on screen left absolutely nothing to imagination. “3 PM”, Sarangi whispered into the Speaker’s ears, and the latter promptly adjourned the House till 3 PM!

Every journalist worth his Assembly pass knows this is the way the Assembly has been run for the last several years by ‘hidden’ powers irrespective of who is the Speaker. If no one had written or reported about it so far, it can only be attributed to the fear of that dreaded provision called ‘privilege’ that can even land someone in jail. (Delhi based defence analyst Avijit Iyer Mitra just got a taste of what it means after foolishly calling the honourable members of the House ‘buddu’!). But this practice of a ‘hidden’ entity choreographing proceedings in the House through the super efficient secretary has been widely discussed and commented on in informal journalistic circles. Scenes of the secretary entering the House and handing over a slip to the Speaker or whispering into his ears when to adjourn the House and for how long have been so routine they hardly raise eyebrows these days. Everyone in the House who has watched these scenes – the media and the Opposition parties – appear to have reconciled themselves to it.

While Speakers have come and gone, the only constant factor in all this has been Assembly secretary Amiya Sarangi, who has already got three extensions for the ‘services’ he has rendered. So valuable have been his ‘services’ that the Odisha Legislative assembly Secretariat (Recruitment & Conditions of Service) Rules, 1983 have been amended thrice to facilitate his continuation in the post. Originally scheduled to retire on March 31, 2013, he is now set to retire on March 31, 2019. But given how valuable his ‘services’ have been, there is no guarantee that even this is final. For all you know, the government could effect another amendment of Rule 8 and give him yet another extension!

That the privilege notice was prompted by political considerations rather than any concern for the ‘dignity’ of the House became clear when the Speaker asked the secretary to serve a privilege notice, moved by Congress chief whip Taraprasad Bahinipati, against OTV for running the tell-tale report aired on Monday evening but not against News 7, which ran a report more or less on the same lines the same evening.

This long running phenomenon – of the Speaker running the House at the behest of someone else – is, in my view, the real ‘privilege’ issue. If true, this lowers the dignity of the august House much more than a TV channel reporting about it.

To be fair to the current dispensation though, it did not invent this handy technique of controlling business in the House by the ruling party. It only took a leaf out of the book of other parties and governments, which have perfected this ploy. Those who follow parliamentary proceedings would recall a widely reported incident in August, 2012 when Rajiv Shukla, the Parliamentary Affairs minister in the UPA government, was caught on the mike in the Chair’s podium telling Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien; “Pure din ke liye House adjourn kar dijiye” (Please adjourn the House for the whole day”). And Mr. Kurien obliged promptly! When there was a furore later in the day over this brazen attempt to ‘instruct’ the Chair, Shukla sought to explain it away saying he had only ‘requested’ the Chair and it was up to him (Kurien) to take a decision.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sarangi, he cannot even hide behind this specious plea since he is not the Parliamentary Affairs minister or even a member of the House, but a mere government officer. Hence, the privilege notice, if any, should have been directed against him rather than the channel that reported it. But when the Speaker himself is fine with it and the principal Opposition party chooses to target the channel rather than him or the officer, who is heard whispering ‘3 PM’ into his ears, there is little one can do about it.

I wonder what Biju Patnaik would have made of this brazen attempt by the party formed in his name to reduce the Speaker – whose position is supreme in the House as per the rule book, even higher than the Leader of the House (Chief Minister) – to a mere pawn acting on instructions from ‘invisible’ powers outside the House. As a young reporter in the early 1990s, I have seen the respect with which the great man treated Yudhisthir Das, the Speaker he had handpicked inside the House and the impartial manner in which the latter conducted the business in the House. I am sure Biju would have been aghast at this lowering of the dignity of not just the exalted post of the Speaker, but of the House as a whole.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)