P H Pandian, who died in Chennai on January 4, 2020, will go down in history as one of the most controversial Speakers of Indian legislature. He claimed he had “sky-high powers”, and used them with telling effect to put down the opposition or the press. Twice, he used his powers to disqualify MLAs en masse. Being a law graduate and a practicing advocate, he would often quote the law of the land and the Assembly rule book to justify his actions and to back his claims.
He refused to take orders from the court or even receive summons, stating that the legislature was supreme, and no force, even it be the courts, could intervene in decisions of the Tamil Nadu Assembly.
As Speaker of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, he twice ordered the arrest of journalists — S. Balasubramaniam, the editor of the highly respected Tamil Magazine, Ananda Vikatan, founded by his father, the famous film producer, S S Vasan; and A.M. Paulraj, editor of the trade weekly Vaniga Ottrumai, in 1985. Vikatan was proceeded against for publishing a cartoon which the AIDMK government considered as offensive and derogatory.
When Balasubramaniam refused to apologize for the cartoon, Pandian, announcing the decision of the Assembly Privileges Committee, sentenced him to three months in prison which was challenged by the magazine editor in the court. Pandian refused to receive the summons of the court, stating that the court could not interfere in his domain. Following nation-wide protests, Balasubramaniam was released from prison after two days. He stuck to his decision to move the court, successfully won the battle and sought an extremely small sum as compensation.
Paulraj locked horns with Pandian after his tongue-in-cheek comments in the February 1983 issue of his weekly: “Recently our chief minister announced that the incidence of rowdyism in the state has been drastically reduced. Only now we realise that all the rowdies in the state have contested elections, become honourable MLAs and entered the legislature. Naturally rowdyism on the streets has decreased… The dignity, honour, decorum and discipline so native to the state of Tamil Nadu have been scattered to the winds by the antics of rowdies, goondas and loafers who had gained entry to the legislature as MLAs.”
Pandian said such characterisation of the Assembly and its MLAs could not go unpunished. Again, citing a ruling of the Privileges Committee, Pandian said in the House that the journalist would be arrested. This turned out to be another tussle with the police and the courts, with Paulraj getting relief from the court.
In November 1986, when DMK general secretary and other partymen participated in an anti-Hindi agitation, and announced that they would burn copies of the Indian Constitution in protest, the then Speaker Pandian, got a resolution passed in the Assembly to disqualify ten DMK MLAs. The DMK later claimed that they had merely burnt pieces of paper, which contained a few quotes from the Constitution. However, the Speaker did not relent and went ahead with the disqualification move, which was criticised by several parties in the country.
On January 28, 1989, when the leader of his party, Janaki MGR, who sought to take over the chief ministership after the death of MGR, had to win the confidence vote in the Assembly but faced a split in the party as the Jayalalithaa group with 33 MLAs were all set to vote against her government and vowed to bring it down. In the normal course, the government would have been defeated in the confidence vote. However, Pandian came up with a plan to disqualify the Jayalalithaa group MLAs even before they voted, so that their votes would not be counted. First, he used the resignation move of some Congress MLAs to delay the confidence vote and allowed pandemonium to prevail in the House.
Instead of simultaneous voting by the entire House, he introduced a system of Block-wise voting, where by MLAs in each block were first asked to exercise their vote. When the Janaki group MLAs in that block stood up and raised their hands to express their vote for Janaki, the Jayalalithaa group MLAs did not stand up. They were waiting for the Speaker to ask MLAs to express their vote against the confidence motion. Instead, before they could vote, the ruling party Whip moved a motion to disqualify MLAs of the Jayalalithaa group for not having voted for Janaki in accordance with the whip issued by the party. The Speaker immediately accepted this motion, and disqualified a set of Jayalalithaa group MLAs before they could vote. Such disqualified MLAs were also evicted from the House when they tried to protest. Using this unprecedented step, Pandian ensured that the 33 AIADMK (J) group MLAs were disqualified and prevented from casting their vote.
The disqualification of the 33 MLAs of the Jayalalitha group by Pandian further reduced the assembly’s strength to 191. This enabled Janaki to win the vote of confidence with the support of only 99 members (eight votes against and three neutral). Other opposition parties boycotted the vote — only 111 members were present during the motion.
Amidst pandemonium, Pandian then announced that Janaki MGR had won the confidence vote. Fisticuffs followed, mikes were removed and thrown around, while even soda water bottles were thrown. Although Pandian informed the Governor that Janaki had won the confidence vote, the then Governor found the proceedings unconstitutional. Citing breakdown of the Constitutional machinery, he recommended dismissal of the government and dissolution of the Assembly, Accordingly, the Centre carried out the same on January 30, 1988.
However, later Pandian maintained that though the House was dissolved, he remained Speaker!
In the subsequent elections to the State Assembly in 1989, the Janaki group suffered a massive defeat, with Pandian, the only one another Janaki loyalist getting elected to the Assembly. Despite his notorious and vitriolic acts, Pandian won from his Cheranmahadevi constituency in Tirunelveli district for the fourth term from 1977. (He was part of the ADMK when founded by MGR in 1972). He returned to the AIADMK under the leadership of Jayalalithaa. He won the Tirunelveli Lok Sabha election in 1999.
However, he later fell out again with the ruling AIADMK during the split in the party after the death of Jayalalithaa in December 2016. He joined hands with rebel leader O Panneerselvam in the fight against Jaya’s aide V K Sasikala. Pandian even claimed that Jayalalithaa had been killed and demanded a full-scale inquiry particularly against Sasikala and members of her family. Later, he retraced his steps to the ruling party along with OPS, and functioned as its legal adviser.
Pandian had several skirmishes with the press as well. He once used unparliamentary epithets against a press person, and later claimed he knew the journo well, and spoke to him out of affection! Late Cho S Ramaswamy, editor of Tughlak, had a running battle with him and his pronouncements. Cho once even claimed to have a tape in which Pandian was alleged to have said that he knew how to tackle the editor.
He once even challenged DMK MLA A Rahman Khan to a physical duel — one to one!
Pandian will perhaps be known for a long time as one of the most colourful Speakers of the country.