Two years ago, on May 23, 2019, when the results of the Lok Sabha elections were announced in Kerala and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) won a whopping 19 out of 20 seats, one of the results that came as a shock to many was the defeat of Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate from Palakkad, MB Rajesh. A two-time Lok Sabha MP, Rajesh was denied a hat-trick victory by UDF’s VK Sreekandan by a margin of 11,637 votes.
Fast forward two years, on May 25 2021, Left supporters in Kerala had much to cheer, not just because the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF managed to retain a second consecutive term in power, but also because MB Rajesh, the LDF candidate from the Thrithala constituency in Palakkad, was sworn in as the 23rd Speaker of the Kerala Legislative Assembly. “Looking back, I feel it was good that I lost the Lok Sabha election. I got time to read and write a lot. I wrote so much that I can publish two books now,” quips Rajesh. In an interview to TNM, the newly elected Speaker of the Kerala Assembly talks about his new role, how he plans to manage his constitutional duties and his politics, and how he plans to make Assembly proceedings more accessible to people.
From being known as one of the best parliamentarians who has posed numerous questions in the Lok Sabha, to now being on the other side as a Speaker of a state Assembly, how do you see this new role?
Certainly it's a different role but I hope that my ten years of experience as a parliamentarian will help me discharge my new responsibilities in an efficient manner. It’s not possible for one person to keep doing the same role always. Responsibilities will keep changing and my aim is to do justice to whatever responsibilities I’m given.
Thrithala constituency was one of the most closely watched and closely fought contests during the recent polls in the state. The controversial statements made by the UDF candidate of Thrithala about Communist icon AK Gopalan (AKG) was in fact, even an election issue of sorts. You also quoted AKG in your acceptance speech as the Speaker of the Assembly. Was that a political statement?
It’s not only AKG’s quote that was political. My entire speech was indeed political. But there is a background to me quoting AKG and it’s not just from the context of Thrithala. When I became an MP in 2009, the very first day when TV channels interviewed me outside the Kerala House in Delhi, I had spoken about what AKG had said about why a Communist should be a member of the parliament and how he should work as a parliamentarian. In my acceptance speech, I had primarily spoken about the tradition of the Kerala Assembly in upholding secular and constitutional values as well as democratic principles. I had also made a correlation about how various people’s struggles in the past led to the creation of various pro-people legislations.
Speaking of political statements, you had earlier told the media that you would continue to speak politics outside the Assembly. Leader of the Opposition VD Satheesan had reacted to this statement and said that the Speaker should refrain from doing so. What are your thoughts on this?
The Opposition leader misunderstood my statement as a result of the media interpreting what I said in a wrong way. First of all, we need to ask how we define politics. Politics doesn’t always mean party politics, which is just a limited area. I used the term in a larger sense, which is above party politics. When you talk about the Constitution, it is political and at the same time it is also political when you talk about secularism. And these topics don’t necessarily come under party politics. The Opposition leader had agreed to this when I clarified it in the Assembly.
Assuming that the larger politics that you speak outside the Assembly is differing from the political stand of the Opposition, won’t that lead to tensions in the Assembly?
I don’t think there is going to be a conflict as such since I won’t be interfering in day-to-day politics. There are definitely going to be differences in ideologies with the Opposition since I’m not going to abandon my political ideologies. Why do we say that the Speaker has to be neutral? Because he/she has to perform a constitutional duty inside the House. If they become party to day-to-day politics, it will hinder their constitutional work in the House. The Constitution does not say anywhere that the Speaker must give up their politics.
Have you thought of any new measures or ways to make Assembly proceedings more accessible to the general public, or ways to inform them about what’s happening inside the House?
One of the measures is to digitalise the Kerala Assembly, i.e to turn it into a paperless Assembly. Secondly, in order to ensure that the Assembly proceedings are taken to a larger audience in real time, we will look to revamp “Sabha TV”, a channel which was started during the tenure of the previous Speaker. Another plan that we have is to strengthen the Assembly library and our research wing and make it more accessible to the public, once the COVID-19 situation gets better. As far as the media is concerned, we have a plan to organise a session for journalists reporting on Assembly sessions, because they have a responsibility to inform the masses about what’s happening inside the House.
What are your thoughts about the media's reporting of the Assembly? Do you feel that there needs to be some changes in that?
During my childhood days, there used to be comprehensive analysis about what’s happening in the Assembly so when we read it, we used to get a fair idea about the events taking place in the Assembly. But of late, only “punch dialogues” get importance and space in the media these days. This can be demotivating to other members who put an effort into studying a certain issue to speak in the House but won’t get mentioned anywhere in the press.
After all the controversies that the previous Speaker had to face, will you be cautious when it comes to attending public functions, inaugurations and so on?
It’s not just the Speaker; all members who hold a public office should be vigilant. As far as I’m concerned, I have made a policy that I will not attend any private functions or inaugurations outside of my constituency. But when it comes to educational institutions, even if they are private, I will try to attend the functions if invited.