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Indian Parliament Gets First Female Speaker

03/06/09June 3, 2009

History was made in India on Wednesday when Parliament elected its first female speaker. Meira Kumar, a former diplomat and five-term Congress party lawmaker, is also a Dalit, a community at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. All the political parties of the otherwise fractious house put aside their differences to elect her unanimously.

Meira Kumar -- a woman and a Dalit -- is the new speaker in the Lok Sabha
Meira Kumar -- a woman and a Dalit -- is the new speaker in the Lok SabhaImage: AP

The 64-year-old Congress leader from Bihar was chosen for the post of speaker of the Lok Sabha, a key constitutional post, after Congress party president Sonia Gandhi proposed that “Meira Kumar, an MP from this parliament, be elected as Speaker of the House.”

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee seconded the nomination.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L.K. Advani led Meira Kumar to the podium. They later paid tributes to the woman who quit the coveted Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in 1985 to join the party that her revered father, the late Jagjivan Ram, once led.

“A tribute to Indian womanhood”

Congratulating Kumar on her unanimous election as speaker, the prime minister said it was a historic event: “In electing you for this august office, Madam, the members of parliament pay tribute to the womanhood of our country.”

Meira Kumar belongs to the Dalit community -- formerly known as the “untouchables”. Observers see this as one reason why political parties across the spectrum, including the BJP, set aside their differences and rushed to support her.

Kumar said she would try to usher in a long-pending controversial bill that would set aside 33 percent of the seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women:

“The women’s reservation bill has been pending for a long time for want of consensus amongst various parties. I hope that in the new and changed atmosphere and the new Lok Sabha there will be a consensus.”

From diplomacy to politics

A double graduate of Delhi University, Kumar joined the Foreign Service in 1973 and served in the Indian missions in Spain, Britain and Mauritius.

She entered politics in 1985 when Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister. She has already served five terms as an MP.

Earlier this week, she was sworn in as a cabinet minister in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers. However, she quit when the decks were cleared for her election as speaker.

The new speaker now faces the challenging task of managing a house of 545 MPs -- including 59 women -- that is prone to erupt into chaos and disorder at the slightest provocation.

Kumar's predecessor, Somnath Chatterjee, the first Communist leader to adorn the post, was expelled from Communist Party of India- Marxist) last year after refusing to follow the party directive to quit his post as speaker after the country’s Left parties withdrew support to the Congress-led UPA government over the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal.

Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Anne Thomas