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In the Chair, a new voice of consensus

Thursday, June 04, 2009 10:16:45 AM, Sanjay K. Jha, The Telegraph

 

Meira Kumar waves after being elected India's first woman parliamentary Speaker in New Delhi. (AFP)

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New Delhi: Meira Kumar can get angry, but she never cries.

 

India’s first woman Speaker, whose “reed-thin” voice might sound like a squeak compared to predecessor Somnath Chatterjee’s booming bellow, gave a hint of the steel beneath her mild demeanour as she took over the task of minding the House today.

Asked what she was like as a woman, the 64-year-old countered with a query.

 

“Are you asking personal questions?” she shot back.

 

“Like everybody else,” she added, “I get angry. But I don’t cry.”

 

Unruly members, take note.

 

On her first day, members were on their best behaviour, congratulating the first woman Speaker and promising to co-operate with her.

 

Nine-time CPM MP Basudeb Acharia, who stood up to offer the Left’s support to the Speaker, had difficulty shedding a habit of almost 30 years and kept addressing Meira as Sir till the backbenchers corrected him and he switched to Madam.

 

Meira, a former diplomat, spoke on a range of issues, like poverty, exploitation and generational change, but stressed on consensual politics as she promised to rise above ideological and partisan interests to uphold the spirit of the Constitution.

 

“The meaning of democracy lies in being compassionate and respectful towards those who don’t agree with you,” she said, quoting Nehru.

 

If that came as a balm for the poll-bruised Opposition, more salve followed. She cautioned the ruling side that good governance in a country like India was not possible without constructive co-operation of every member.

 

In her acceptance speech to the Lok Sabha and later at her first news conference as Speaker, Meira showed political correctness and humility. She recalled the legacy attached to the Speaker’s office — from G.V. Mavalankar, the first Lok Sabha Speaker, to Chatterjee — and said she felt humbled.

 

Meira, daughter of the late Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram, said the choice of a woman for the post was more than a symbolic gesture. She said the unanimous decision to elect a woman to run the House, two years after the election of India’s first woman President, showed the nation’s firm resolve to empower women.

 

“We have a long way to go but there is a genuine intention to make women’s position stronger,” she said. “Women’s empowerment is not merely a slogan but concrete steps are being taken in that direction.”

 

Even on women’s empowerment, her focus was on consensus. Though every leader who spoke in the Lok Sabha after her election felt that the jinxed women’s reservation bill could be headed for a better future, Meira explained the Constitution couldn’t be amended without consensus.

 

Asked if women MPs would now get proper time to speak, she dismissed the suggestion that members got more or less time because of their gender.

 

Meira dwelt on poverty and exploitation and said Independence meant little for a vast majority of Indians, especially Dalits and tribals, and quoted Gandhi to say it was pointless if members of Parliament were in disconnect with the masses.

 

Pointing out that around 300 new MPs were “young”, she asked the older MPs to guide them and to give priority to the aspirations of youth.

 

The new Speaker showed maturity by being non-committal on contentious issues like the no-work-no-pay, diminishing working hours in Parliament and salaries of MPs.

 

On criminals entering Parliament, she avoided any idealist posturing. “Everybody wanted to bar criminals from Parliament,” she said, “and the Election Commission was taking steps in that direction.”

 

Asked about her favourite colour, Meira said: “I like green. I am a green woman.”

 

Her favourite book, she said, was Kalidas’s Abhigyan Shankuntalam. “I read it again and again."

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