Chatterjee Hopeful Of India-Kingdom Exchanges

Somnath Chatterjee, India’s Lok Sabha speaker, is an experienced parliamentarian who has spent 37 years as the people’s representative. Chatterjee’s name is now doing the rounds as the next occupant of India’s president house (Rashtrapati Bhavan). He may replace President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as India’s first citizen when his current term ends in July. But Chatterjee refused to speak yesterday when asked whether he is a candidate for the highest job.

Chatterjee, an ardent supporter of Saudi-Indo relations and who won the “Outstanding Parliamentarian Award” in 1996, was unanimously elected speaker of Lok Sabha when the United Progressive Alliance government came to power in India. But, Chatterjee has had a tumultuous tenure as speaker. Known as a stickler for rules, he has had many run-ins with MPs. He is most conscious of the fact that the image of the Indian Parliament is not sullied by unruly scenes in the house.

Taking strong exception, on an occasion, to the charge that he was indulging in aggressive behavior in Parliament, Chatterjee has even said he would have no “regrets in leaving his post of speaker.” Chatterjee began his career as a lawyer and joined active politics in 1968. His ascendancy in national politics began with his election to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1971. Since then, he has served as a member in all successive Lok Sabhas getting elected for the tenth time in 2004 as a member of the current 14th Lok Sabha. His repeated victories with impressive margins testify to his popularity with the masses, his standing in politics and his towering stature as a parliamentarian.

Arab News met Chatterjee yesterday at the government-owned palatial Conference Palace Hotel in the Saudi capital. As always he was candid and outspoken while answering questions. “We had very good discussions with Saudi leaders on all subjects including the functioning of the proposed Saudi-Indian Parliamentary Friendship Society, which will contribute greatly to the promotion of our bilateral ties,” he said.

“The Kingdom also reaffirmed its support for India’s candidature for the membership of the UN Security Council,” said Chatterjee, while referring to his talks with Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. He was extremely happy to note this gesture of support. Chatterjee, during his stay, met Crown Prince Sultan, Riyadh Governor Prince Salman and Prince Saud and discussed ways and means to strengthen bilateral ties between India and the Kingdom.

The Lok Sabha speaker, who is leading a high-level parliamentary delegation to the Kingdom, said that the discussions with Saudi officials took place within the framework of the “Delhi Declaration” -— an agreement that was signed during the historic visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to India in January last year. “Our discussions during my trip focused more on how to boost ties between the two countries especially in the economic sphere by attracting investments,” he said.

The speaker said that India can set up a state-of-the-art institution of higher learning in Saudi Arabia. This proposal, he said, was also supported by Prince Saud. “I have been told by Prince Saud that the Kingdom will also be sending about 10,000 Saudi students to India to pursue higher education,” he said, adding that about 200 students are about to leave for India shortly.

“Discussions also revolved around establishing joint ventures between the two countries,” he said, pointing out that “the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia will add a new dimension to our bilateral relation.”

He added, “I have also invited the Shoura Council chief to visit India.” Chatterjee hopes that the exchange of visits will strengthen bonds between the two nations and spoke highly about the Makkah accord, which was the brainchild of King Abdullah.

In the Indian context, the Lok Sabha speaker said that the Indian Parliament is an apex institution. “We have a number of parliamentary friendship groups and we have already proposed a similar group with Saudi Arabia.” He added that the members and officials from the Indian Parliament had been visiting various countries quite often. “I have also authorized some members to participate in the session of the UN Commission on the status of women,” he said.

This meeting on discrimination and violence against young girls, which is to be organized jointly by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Division for the Advancement of Women (UNDAW), will be held on March 1 at the UN in New York.

Chatterjee said that his next priority was to ensure a smooth session of Parliament, which begins on Feb 23. “In a move to ensure a smooth session, I have convened a series of meetings with various political parties from Feb. 20,” he said. “While a luncheon meeting would be held with NDA leaders on Feb. 20, I will meet UPA partners over dinner on the same day,” he said, adding that the next days he proposes to meet leaders of the left — the Samajwadi Party and other parties — that support the government from outside.

In reply to another question about the diminishing role of the Parliamentary Standing Committees, the speaker said, “Though the recommendations of such committees are not binding, but the recommendations cannot be ignored.”

In a recent report, the speaker also urged educated people to participate in mainstream politics. He also asked the youth to come forward to make the Parliament corruption-free.

Chatterjee has also been personally in favor of a “right to recall” system in democracy, as the people are the ultimate judges to decide the performance of their representatives. “But, it is not such an easy thing to be resolved in our parliamentary democracy as all the political parties have to arrive at a consensus, which may be a difficult task,” he added.

Chatterjee said, “It was the duty of the elected representatives to fulfill the ambitions of their voters and remind them that they should resolve the issues by meaningful debates only.” Despite many shortfalls, India still is in the forefront among other developing countries by virtue of the great parliamentary democracy system. He felt that the performance and the functioning of the parliament as well as its members would improve if people who elected their representatives have the “right to recall.”

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