New Delhi : History was made in India Wednesday when diplomat-turned-politician Meira Kumar, 64, became the first woman speaker of the Lok Sabha – the lower house of parliament – with MPs cutting across party lines supporting the election of the Dalit leader.
The newly elected members of the 15th Lok Sabha watched in rapt attention as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani, who were engaged in a bitter war of words until a month ago, together led Meira Kumar to the podium.
Political leaders from various parties paid rich tributes to Meira Kumar, who had quit the prestigious Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1985 to join the Congress, a party of which her father, the late Jagjivan Ram, was a revered leader.
“In many ways it is a historic event as it is for the first time that a Congress woman member of house has been unanimously elected as speaker,” Manmohan Singh said, evoking thunderous applause in the splintered 545-member Lok Sabha.
Party president Sonia Gandhi proposed Meira Kumar’s name for the post. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee seconded it.
Member after member welcomed the speaker. She returned the compliments, saying it was “a “historic decision” to elect a woman to the coveted post and thanked everyone for being chosen for the honour.
She assured the house that she would be judicious and give all members equal opportunity to speak.
Meira Kumar told a press conference later: “It was a historic decision to elect a woman speaker. I am deeply honoured that I have been elected the first woman speaker of the great and vibrant democracy that we have.”
Later, when journalists asked her if men should be scared now that India has a woman president and a speaker, she laughed: “Well, I think so.”
The prime minister said he hoped the “charm” and “grace” of the new speaker would “calm frayed tempers that sometimes happen in the house”, evoking widespread laughter from MPs.
The Lok Sabha speaker’s status in the Warrant of Precedence is next only to the president, vice president and prime minister. Meira Kumar is the 16th speaker of the Lok Sabha.
Advani said he did not have any idea that Meira Kumar would be elected the speaker when she was sworn in May 22 with 18 other cabinet ministers of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
“I read (in newspapers) that your voters are disappointed with your election as speaker but I feel you will be able to serve the people better in this position than as a minister,” he said.
Finance Minister Mukherjee, leader of the lower house, said: “Your experience as a diplomat, political organiser, administrator in government and long standing in parliament and association with this house will help you render your responsibility as best as possible… in the real temple of democracy.”
Communist Party of India’s Gurudas Dasgupta said Meira Kumar’s election marked a new chapter in India’s parliament.
Meira Kumar belongs to the Dalit – formerly untouchable – community, one reason why political parties across the spectrum in the hung house rushed to support her.
The new speaker got down to her new job even as senior leaders of various parties were busy singing paeans to her and wishing her success. This was when two leaders from her home state of Bihar exchanged heated arguments in the house.
In her mild-mannered but firm way, Meira Kumar expunged the remarks made by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal-United (JD-U) president Sharad Yadav, who had a spat when the former was giving his congratulatory speech to the new speaker.
“Nothing of this will go on record,” the speaker said.
A double graduate of Delhi University, Meira Kumar joined the IFS in 1973 and served in the Indian missions in Spain, Britain and Mauritius.
She took to politics in 1985 when Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. She was elected to the Lok Sabha twice from Karol Bagh constituency in the national capital.
After one defeat, she shifted to Sasaram in Bihar — a constituency that her father Jagjivan Ram, a long-time confidant of Indira Gandhi, represented for years in the Lok Sabha.
Meira Kumar, while taking the compliments of one and all, exhorted the Lok Sabha MPs to put the elections behind them and address the social and economic problems facing the country.