Minutes after the ruling National Democratic Alliance announced Om Birla of the Bharatiya Janata Party as its nominee for the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker, Kodikunnil Suresh of the Congress also filed a nomination, paving the way for a rare contest for the post.

Since Independence, elections to the Speaker’s post have been held only on three occasions – in the first Lok Sabha in 1952, in the fourth Lok Sabha in 1967, and then in 1976, when the tenure of the fifth Lok Sabha was extended by a year after declaration of Emergency. For the 18th Lok Sabha too, efforts had been made to build consensus between the government and the Opposition over the choice of Speaker, but they did not work out.

On Tuesday morning, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi told reporters that Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had requested Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge over a phone call to extend support for the government’s choice for the post of the Speaker.

“The entire Opposition has said that we will support the Speaker [candidate], but the convention is that the deputy Speaker should be from the Opposition,” Gandhi said. “Yesterday evening, Rajnath Singh ji had said he would call back Kharge ji. He has not done that so far.”

Gandhi said this showed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not want constructive cooperation.

Since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, it is almost certain that Birla will win the election to be held on Wednesday. But, by fielding its candidate for the post, the Opposition has signalled that, buoyed by its increased strength in the Lok Sabha, it will be more combative during the third term of the National Democratic Alliance government.

The Lok Sabha speaker, although meant to act as a neutral referee, plays a politically critical role especially when the government has a thin majority and is dependent on allies. In such situations, the role of the Speaker in deciding on matters like anti-defection laws becomes very important

“The constitutional powers vested in Speakers under the anti-defection law also gives them the ability to make and break governments,” said Chakshu Roy, the head of legislative and civic engagement at PRS Legislative Research.

After the Lok Sabha elections, as the sustenance of the Modi-led government depended on support from allies Telugu Desam Party and Janata Dal (United), there was speculation that the two parties could demand for the post of Speaker as an insurance against defections to the BJP.

While the BJP has warded off the challenge from its allies, it finds itself locked in conflict with the Opposition.

What are the conventions surrounding the Speaker’s post?

The Speaker is the constitutional head of the Lok Sabha and the post is, by convention, allotted to the ruling party or alliance. By the same convention, the Opposition usually holds the Deputy Speaker's post.

Former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, PDT Achary, said that the convention to elect the Speaker and Deputy Speaker by consensus, and not voting, is followed because they are considered to be “impartial arbiters” who are above party affiliations.

Achary added, however, that these conventions have been broken when the government and Opposition have failed to reach a consensus.

In the first term of the Modi-led government between 2014 and 2019, the deputy Speaker of Lok Sabha was M Thambidurai of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which was then an ally of the BJP. Meanwhile, the previous Lok Sabha (2019-2024), in an unprecedented manner, finished its tenure without a deputy Speaker. The government did not initiate the proceedings to elect a deputy Speaker and neither could the Opposition parties nominate a candidate as none of them had 10% of the seats of the total strength of the Lok Sabha, which is required to be officially designated as the Opposition.

There is speculation that in the sitting Lok Sabha, the BJP wants to get an MP of its ally Telugu Desam Party elected as the deputy Speaker.

Why is the Speaker’s post important?

Achary said that apart from the presiding over the day-to-day business of the Lok Sabha, the Speaker has two major constitutional functions – the power to certify a bill as a money bill and the power to decide on the disqualification of MPs under the anti-defection law.

Notably, both these powers have been under scrutiny in recent years.

Article 110 of the Constitution gives the power to the Speaker to designate a bill as a money bill. These bills can be fast tracked into a law because unlike other bills, they need not be passed in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. A money bill only requires assent from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha only gets 14 days to return it with recommendations. The Lok Sabha may either accept or reject these recommendations and enact the money bill into law.

The Opposition has criticised the Modi-led government in the past 10 years for introducing crucial laws through this route, purportedly to circumvent the Rajya Sabha where it did not always enjoy a majority. Amendments to the Prevention of Money Laundering Act which gave greater powers to the Enforcement Directorate, amendments to the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act used to crackdown on several non-government bodies, and the law to introduce the electoral bonds scheme were introduced as money bills.

As far as the power of the Speaker in relation to the anti-defection law is concerned, it sparked controversy in 2022 when the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government fell following a split in the Shiv Sena engineered by Eknath Shinde, who went on to become the chief minister.

The Tenth Schedule of the Constitution gives the Speaker of the House the power to decide on disqualification of legislators who defect from a party. If a legislator voluntarily gives up the membership of her political party or votes against a whip issued by her party, she is liable for disqualification. But the 10th Schedule protects legislators from disqualification if two-thirds of a party’s legislators in a House merge with another party. In such cases, the Speaker decides whether or not to disqualify the legislators.

In Maharashtra, Rahul Narwekar of the BJP, who was elected Speaker of the state Assembly after Shinde took over as chief minister, dismissed petitions to disqualify 30 MLAs and declared the breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena as the real party. His decision raised questions on whether Narwekar had acted in an impartial manner. Even the Supreme Court questioned whether Narwekar, in declaring the Shinde faction as the real Shiv Sena, had contradicted its judgement which gave power to the Speaker to decide on the disqualification pleas.

What are the other powers of the Speaker?

Roy said that even when not faced with extraordinary situations like deciding on defections, the Speaker’s role is crucial when it comes to ensuring impartiality in the day-to-day conduct of the House.

He cited the example of the Speaker’s power in referring bills to Parliamentary committees for greater scrutiny. Only 16% of the bills passed in the 17th Lok Sabha [2019-2024] were referred to Parliamentary committees, which is lower than the numbers of three previous Lok Sabhas.

The Speaker’s power to suspend legislators from the House had also come into focus during the previous Lok Sabha, Roy pointed out. In the Winter Session of Parliament in 2023, a total of 141 Opposition MPs had been suspended, 95 of whom were legislators in the Lok Sabha. The MPs were seeking a discussion in Parliament on a security breach inside the Lok Sabha chamber on December 13.

An analysis by The Hindu showed that during the National Democratic Alliance regime between 2014 and 2024, ninety-four MPs were suspended from Lok Sabha. In the previous 10-year period of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, 50 MPs had been suspended. The analysis also noted a rise in MPs being suspended en masse.

“The Speaker has the final word in Parliament proceedings, the government could set the agenda for a Parliament session, but it is the Speaker who runs the business,” Roy said. “The question here is not about a Speaker candidate winning or losing. The bigger question is about the two sides not being able to agree…This has broader ramifications for the functioning of our national legislature.”