Not a lower house

The Hindu Business Line, February 23, 2014

Why protests in and outside both the Houses constitute a natural progression and deepening of democracy in India

Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar?s rather simulated sensibilities were outraged by the extraordinary spectacle in the Lok Sabha last week. Admittedly, the recent pandemonium marks an unprecedented chapter in the chequered history of the House of the People. But a lot of the high-brow criticism is misdirected; not excluding the Speaker?s description of the event being a ?blot? on Indian parliamentary democracy.

What is deeply disturbing about the histrionics exhibited by Congress?s Lagadapati Rajagopal and the TDP?s Venugopal Reddy was not that they used pepper sprays and wielded a knife respectively. It was that their own business interests rather than people?s issues were at the heart of their theatrics in the Lok Sabha. Rajagopal presides over the ₹15,000 Lanco Group of Companies while Venugopal Reddy is the promoter of the Ramky Group that has invested in massive real estate interests in Hyderabad and adjoining districts. Creation of Telangana, which is what the protests in Parliament were about, would directly impact these business interests.

So when the Speaker despairs over the MPs? behaviour, one can only hope that the reference is towards the cause and not the superficial effects that were visible in the Lok Sabha last week. While the Speaker is within her rights to ensure decorum in the House, the protests, however violent, are not the real danger that threatens our ?temple of democracy?.

For those covering Parliament over the years, protests in and outside both the Houses constitute a natural progression and deepening of democracy in India. The stately corridors and beautiful stone architecture that once symbolised colonial power are now endowed with a quintessential Indian ethos. It is where modern India, characterised by Constitution, laws, legislature, fuses ceaselessly with traditional Bharat in its caste, community, mohalla, rituals and other myriad ways. Debates may no longer be reminiscent of their Westminster reproductions carried out by the legendary parliamentarians of yore. But they do reflect a very Indian reality.

Even the most anglicised of the MPs retain enough of their rusticity to impart a typically Indian flavour to the goings-on in Parliament. On July 23, 2008, the day the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to ferry wads of cash inside the House to stage its sensational expos?of how the government was ?buying? MPs for votes, I noticed the veteran Jaswant Singh sighing audibly in disgust. Sensing his unease with the show his party had put up, I followed him inside his beautifully decorated chambers as the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

But Jaswant Singh is a tough warhorse; not easily lured into a confession by a half-way clever reporter. ?As a veteran MP, don?t you think this is disgraceful?? I had barely started when he delivered his gallant putdown. ?So you think I am a veteran, my dear. How tragic. Keshav ke sang as kari, jas arihon na karaye. Chandra badan mrig-lochani, baba kahi kahi jai. (Even his worst enemy should not suffer the fate that has befallen Keshav. Beautiful women now refer to him as an old man.) Keshav was a romantic poet who wrote mostly in the lilting avadhi dialect of eastern Uttar Pradesh. Benevolent sexism, especially its feudal variety common among the parliamentarians of the princely lot, is not without its charm.

Besides the princes and thikanedaars, you can occasionally encounter the entirely charm-less Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hurrying through the corridors, hand in the pocket, barely glancing at the gawking scribes. In sharp contrast, various loquacious ministers can be found huddled with groups, whispering and sharing a joke. Those among the journalists fortunate to be blessed with a pass for the Central Hall have greater access and chance of interacting with the ministers and various leaders of opposition.

Before Pranab Mukherjee became President, his loud outbursts reverberated intermittently in the corridors where reporters stood around sipping flavoured Darjeeling tea for a princely sum of ₹1. You learn about how parliamentary democracy functions, in its quintessentially chaotic Indian fashion. It no longer has Jawaharlal Nehru or Piloo Modi and or even the last of the Bhadralok ? the perennially outraged Somnath Chatterjee. But till recently, it had among the most diligent and upright politician of our times ? the late CPI(M) MP Dipankar Mukherjee and has, of late, welcomed some outstanding young legislators such as Jyoti Mirdha and Meenakshi Natarajan of the Congress. Even the reduced Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) still has the sense to send the illustrious Raghuvansh Prasad Singh among its representatives in the Lok Sabha. It is no longer a genteel, exclusive club.

Some would argue that it was the Emergency and its aftermath, the rise of volatile socialists such as Ram Manohar Lohia and the student/Naxalite movement of the ?70s that broke the stranglehold of the Bhadralok over democracy?s highest seat in India. But for most, it was when elements from the politics of Mandal and Kamandal entered Parliament that it no longer remained the domain of the ruling elite. When Mandalites stormed Parliament in the ?90s with a stunning new idiom symbolised in Lalu Prasad Yadav?s colourful vocabulary and quirky rusticity, the contempt of the gentry who had thus far presided over the haloed precincts was barely suppressed. They cried over falling standards of the debate and ?hooliganism? in both the Houses. But the traditional had, by then, asserted its supremacy over the anglicised modern idiom mouthed mostly by the uppity Marxists.

The real issue, as the late Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI), explained to me years ago, is not whether the idiom of protest and debate is acceptable. It is the reason for both that is of paramount importance. The profoundly disturbing aspect of the goings-on in the last session of the 15th Lok Sabha was that people were not at the heart of either protest or debate. All the theatrics traced their root to private business interests.

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