'Speaker must remain neutral like a referee'

Former speaker Daman Nath Dhungana built a reputation for taking an impartial approach in steering the sessions of the Parliament. Dhungana, who remained at the helm of the lower House for three years immediately after restoration of democracy in the early 1990s, had once said that ‘the government belongs to the ruling party but the House belongs to the opposition’. This statement sent a clear message that opposition parties should be allowed to express their views freely in the House and the speaker should create an environment for the opposition to do so. Many are now saying incumbent Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara has failed to uphold this basic principle of running the House. This is because he stands accused of lending support to the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to bulldoze the controversial National Medical Education Bill through the House of Representatives last Friday despite opposition from the Nepali Congress. Jagdishor Panday of The Himalayan Times met Dhungana to discuss these issues. Excerpts:

Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has used its two-thirds majority to bulldoze the National Medical Education Bill through the House of Representatives despite opposition from the Nepali Congress. What is your take on this issue?

There were differences among ruling and opposition parties on the content of the bill. Even Dr Govinda KC, who has been fighting for reforms in medical education, is staging yet another hunger strike stating the provisions in the bill do not favour the general public. Against this backdrop, the House of Representatives should not have endorsed the bill. There were lapses on the part of the government too. Earlier, the incumbent government had entered into an agreement with Dr KC expressing commitment to incorporate his demands in the bill. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli was well aware of this. But the premier failed to live up to the promise made by his government. Shouldn’t the prime minister take moral responsibility for failing to fulfil Dr KC’s demands? The incumbent prime minister has the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers in the House. This indicates he was in a position to address Dr KC’s demands. Instead, he chose to use the support of lawmakers to bulldoze the bill through the House. The speaker did not intervene nor did he try to take the opposition into confidence despite knowing that the bill was of public importance.

What role should the speaker have played?

The speaker should work as a referee or an arbiter. The rule of the game in the House is to strike a balance between the opposition party, ruling party and the speaker. Let me refer to a famous quote: ‘Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.’ This basically means that a slight tinge of bias is enough to raise questions over a judicial decision. So, speakers have to remain neutral. In order to show this neutrality, speakers should allow opposition members to express their views freely in the House. When I was the speaker, I had said that the House belongs to the opposition and the government belongs to the ruling party. When I made this statement I faced lots of criticism from my party members. But I did not dither from my responsibility. Looking back, I think I took the right decision because the opposition would have hit the streets and created more problems if I had not given them space in the House. The incumbent speaker failed to take the opposition into confidence despite knowing there were differences over the content of the bill. I was told that the opposition had requested that the bill not be presented in the House that day. But the speaker did not listen to them and initiated the process of endorsing the bill.

The opposition Nepali Congress has accused Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara of not being neutral at the time of passing the bill. What is your view?

The duty of a speaker is not easy. Sometimes lawmakers who are not happy with decisions taken by the speaker simply raise the question of neutrality. Regarding the passage of the National Medical Education Bill, the speaker was aware that the opposition party was not happy with some of the provisions of the legislation. But he did not make any attempt to bridge the differences. Even the government made a mistake by not informing Dr KC about changes made to the bill. Considering this, the speaker should not have initiated the process of passing the bill on Friday. Generally, in Nepal, bills are not endorsed on Fridays. This shows the speaker rushed through the process.

Speaker Mahara’s tongue slipped several times during last Friday’s House proceeding. Did you notice?

Yes. This indicates he was under tremendous pressure from the ruling party as well as the government. The speaker should not show his stress level in the House. Yes, the ruling party exerts pressure on speakers. But they should keep their calm and maintain neutrality. When I was the speaker, neither the ruling party nor its president could exert pressure on me.

The ruling NCP lawmakers have accused you of allowing the ruling party to pass a bill without taking the opposition into confidence when you were the speaker. Is it true?

I’ll have to look into the archive to know what exactly happened. Sometimes, speakers have to rush through the process if the legislation is of great importance. In other words, extraordinary times demand extraordinary actions. The National Medical Education Bill was presented in the House and passed swiftly as if in an emergency situation. Was this necessary? I don’t think so, because Dr KC, the opposition party and large sections of society were opposed to it. This indicates the ruling party used force to pass the bill and the speaker was supportive of the ruling party’s action.

How should the speaker move ahead to reduce the conflict between the ruling NCP and main opposition Nepali Congress?

In the House, the ruling party always needs the opposition. So, the ruling party should try to bridge differences with the opposition. The parliamentary process is not only about competition but also cooperation. So, discussions should be held at length to settle differences. If the ruling party acts irrationally, the opposition may walk away from the House as was done in Bangladesh. The absence of opposition in the House may help the ruling party pass the bills easily, but will such legislation be acceptable to all? Such a situation may prompt people to lose faith in the parliamentary system, inviting new problems. So, the ruling party should listen to the opposition.

And what role should the main opposition Nepali Congress play in the House?

As leader of the opposition party, Sher Bahadur Deuba should guide his team in the House. He should regularly attend House sessions. Without him, the opposition will not be able to play a crucial role in the House. When I was speaker, I noticed that House meetings were different when opposition leaders like Madan Bhandari and Man Mohan Adhikari were present. Even the speaker becomes more alert when key opposition leaders are present in the House.

What role should the government play? Are you happy with its performance?

The government has failed to prepare all the federal laws and is not serious about empowering provinces. Even provincial chief ministers from the ruling party are not happy with the federal government’s attitude. This shows the government is not serious about implementing the constitution and institutionalising federalism. All the while, cases of corruption are on the rise and the judiciary has been politicised. The government and lawmakers should allow the judiciary to operate independently.

Lastly, the demands of Dr KC, who is currently staging his 16th hunger strike, include issues beyond the medical education sector. One of such demands is on transitional justice. Was this warranted?

He shouldn’t have raised issues that are not related to medical education. He is known as a crusader of medical education reform and he should have remained within his boundary. Inclusion of issues that are not related to medical education has weakened his protest programme.