Bercow "shocked"; his options limited

Topics West Bengal

It may sound presumptuous. But listening to John Bercow, Speaker of the British House of Commons, simmering in wrath over Parliament suddenly being shut down for more than five weeks, the late Bijoy Kumar Banerjee might well have adapted Gopal Krishna Gokhale’s famous line and chuckled, “What Bengal thinks today, Britain thinks tomorrow.” 

For ignoramuses (or ignorami if you wish to sound pedantic), Banerjee was the West Bengal Legislative Assembly Speaker responsible in 1967 for what constitutional pundits call the most confident, bold and impartial act in India’s legislative history. I can do no better than repeat a few lines from this column of March 5, 2016, which recalled that stormy November 29 morning when I took my mother to the Assembly and the security man checking her handbag joked, “I must make sure Madam that you are not carrying a hand bomb in your handbag!” I wrote, “No sooner had the governor, Dharma Vira, a retired ICS officer, taken his seat than the Speaker, Bijoy Banerjee, stood up and wagging his finger like a village schoolmaster admonishing errant children, intoned that by summoning the Assembly, the governor had dealt the greatest blow to democracy since 1642, when King Charles I entered the House of Commons. The MPs he had gone to arrest had disappeared; asked about their whereabouts, the speaker, William Lenthall, famously replied in words Banerjee would have loved to utter, ‘I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here’.”

Banerjee then adjourned the House sine die. The background to that drama was the governor’s dismissal (presumably under Indira Gandhi’s orders) of West Bengal’s elected United Front government. Instead, he appointed the septuagenarian former Congress chief minister, Prafulla Chandra Ghosh, who pretended to head a notional “Progressive Democratic Front”. The front had no existence outside Raj Bhavan’s drawing room where the governor deluded himself that Ghosh’s minority regime commanded a legislative majority. Back in the safety of Raj Bhavan (and no doubt after an exhaustive telephone conversation with his mentors in New Delhi), Dharma Vira retaliated to the tat of Banerjee’s adjournment with the tit of dissolution. A crippling hartal followed by rioting led to the predictable President's Rule.

Bercow professes to be as shocked and indignant as Banerjee at what he calls “a constitutional outrage” whose “purpose” of stopping Parliament debate on Brexit is “blindingly obvious”. But his options are limited in gentlemanly, law-abiding, protocol-bound Britain. The offender is not a civil servant governor appointed by the prime minister but Her Majesty herself even though everyone knows she is obliged to do the bidding of the prime minister she has appointed. It was Boris Johnson who decided Parliament should be prorogued although he is protected in the looking-glass world of British constitutional politics by the fiction of “The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council” taking the decision. The Queen is said to have acted on the advice not of her prime minister but of her Privy Council. In consequence, “the Right Honourable the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain” will carry out her wish and prorogue Parliament. That exalted worthy is another MP who is appointed by the prime minister but enjoys nominal precedence over his boss. 

Such anomalies and inconsistences spare what has been called the most aristocratic of democracies and the most democratic of aristocracies, the hurly-burly of Indian legislatures. I well remember the pandemonium in the West Bengal Assembly after Banerjee’s bombshell when the dumpy little governor had to be bundled out into his car, his glasses knocked off in the melee. Towering over others, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, suspected by some of planning the coup and destined to become West Bengal’s last Congress chief minister, clasped a bulky copy of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Practice. The book might have been effective as a missile had Ray chosen to hurl it at Banerjee, but served no purpose in guiding our rough and ready politicians in practising India’s tumultuous version of parliamentary politics. 

There can be no question of Bercow or anyone else reacting so churlishly when the Queen in all her regal finery opens Parliament on October 14. But Her Majesty might spare a moment to ponder on the advice of an anti-Brexit organisation called Best for Britain: “If the Queen is asked to help, she would do well to remember history doesn’t look too kindly on royals who aid and abet the suspension of democracy.” 

That takes me back to Banerjee’s declamation about Charles I. But, of course, no matter what the great and the good say, history dare not repeat itself.

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