On August 14... at the stroke of mid-night the unique 'Tryst with Destiny' speech of Nehru will have lived for 74 years; tomorrow morning country will be stepping into 75th year of Independence. Prime Minister will address the nation, the tri-colour will flutter, over a billion Indians will be exhorted upon to be proud of their country, and have dreams for the future. Media will have a flood of flag-hoisting visuals and reports of lofty speeches of all Toms, Dicks, and Harrys- local, regional, and national. Rituals will be adhered to religiously...
But will this show of patriotism and hope wash away the dirt on the face of our parliament or shall our democracy be reduced to lament like Lady Macbeth- 'All perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten this hand?' Only yesterday, we saw and read what happened in Rajya Sabha (the so called) upper house- where the wiser and the sober (as different from the brash and the popular of Lok Sabha-the 'lower' house) of our polity are supposed to be in majority. It was no house of representatives but a proper akhada of political pehelwans which Marshals could not marshal.
Will the Independence day weekend be just a recess before the next horror show in parliament?
While nobody has felt bad about the melee in Rajya Sabha there is a torrent of bad blood as allegations galore, and the charge of 'murder of Democracy' is mutual. This itself should confirm that all those present during the fracas are guilty members of the ruling party and opposition, men and women, veterans and greens, jostlers and on-lookers- one and all! Treasury benches are hypocritically asking for strong disciplinary action against the 'guilty'; they should just recall their own indecorous record when the shoe was on the other foot.
It is also interesting that while both houses of parliament functioned for only 25 percent of the stipulated time, which in itself was too short and in clock hours each house worked for just about one day some 20 bills were cleared in both houses together! Members who grabbed each other by the throat passed one bill without controversy-empowering the states to make lists of their OBC castes- which are sure to accelerate the process of social fission while there is talk of 'social engineering' ad nauseam!
What is this new style of democracy where decisions are arrived at without travelling? It is anybody's guess that- the representatives we propel to the two houses do not represent us but are driven by the power motive. If I have the power I shall be immune to all scrutiny and if I don't have it I will be looking to avenge myself- no matter their party because within parties too it is just 'grab/pounce upon' power. Parties are not run democratically and parliament consists of members who are nurtured on this 'hell with democracy' potion. One wonders whether our present 800 odd members have even heard of provisions like 'Zero Hour', 'Individual Member's Bill', 'Call Attention Motion' at all. The parliamentary stalwarts seen by my generation thrived on them!
On the one hand, running parliament does not come cheap as the daily expenses run into crores; the sessions are already curtailed due to the pandemic. A tax-paying honest citizen would expect that whatever little time is available would be spent in debates over policy matters. Yet battle lines are drawn on the eve of each session from both sides; the opposition wants to stall proceedings while the ruling parties plan to sabotage the opposition strategies. Parliament is no more a forum and turns into a battleground. The battle gets heated as both sides are stubborn. Language gets fouled, and things go from bad to worse. Body (language) comes into the play: hateful hand movements, burning eyes, derisive smirks pour oil onto the smoking fire, levels of decency are forgotten. MPs leave their seats, the well of the house is turned into a boxing ring, the Chair summons the Marshals, and if they too fail, adjourns the House.
Occasionally, tempers cool down after some time and the less rowdy from both sides come forward. The house is reconvened; proceedings start with lukewarm apologies (sometimes) from both sides; the Chair knows that it is only the lull before the storm makes a speech of its faith in the now-democratic MPs. Someone requests that the ugly episode be expunged from the record; the request is applauded by the (chastised?) Miscreants and the Chair grants it warmly!
Can this sickeningly routine farce be changed and parliament is reinvented as the supreme decision-making body?
Consider the last week in parliament; time was too short- issues too many! (Interestingly, nobody minds a short session) Pegasus was certainly not a matter of life and death. As I suggested in an earlier piece state surveillance is an all-time reality, and its modus operandi needs to be smooth. The number of really urgent matters is growing all the time- confused policy over pandemic control, faltering economy, nationwide chaos in the field of education, floods, and landslides, rising prices of essential commodities, farmers sit in (rightly/wrongly) on the border of the capital, terrible slow down in tourism, entertainment and leisure activities which are a major source of revenue, restrictions on travel, the astronomic challenge of vaccinating more than half the population before the year-ending, insufficiency and disparities in current vaccination effort...The list goes on and on...
The saddest part is that the above issues were lost sight of not due to error of omission, but they were sidelined on purpose...
But could ruling side have handled things differently? The country is still in doldrums over Covid-19 and faces Hamlet-like ' to do or not to do ' dilemmas over it. Leaders of the economy want the removal of curbs forthwith while experts in public health issue warnings of a third wave; environmentalists raise their general concerns by habit. Understandably there are local variations in rates of infection, treatment, recovery (We are still lucky that death rates are low). In such a situation, the Centre could have appealed that Covid-19 is a national calamity to be treated above politics and formed an All-Party Commission on Remedies to the Pandemic (Remember Churchill's War Cabinet). This would have helped simmering matters to cool off. It also would have brought to the fore original ideas-if any- from the Opposition.
The Centre is truly short of ideas over the pandemic and needs to involve other political parties-to mention one of the many other agencies like medical associations, health researchers, community health organisations and look to evolve 'National Consensus' (Vajpayee's favourite phrase but NaMo and BJP don't want his legacy) and start a new chapter on a clean page.
In fact, such national bodies are the need of the hour. The four pillars of our democracy have become sterile and keep going over the old muck day in and day out. We need to set up such organisations to discuss issues that are going to haunt us no matter who is in power. Those in political power need not pioneer in these but they have a role as catalysts-at least the more 'democratic' among them.
Am I dreaming on Independence Day: hope not day dreaming!
While I may have been day dreaming NaMo has dropped a bomb!
NaMo and Shah have asked us to treat August 14 as a day to remember the 'horrors of partition'. They claim it will 'unite' the country! What hypocrisy !
God help us if the top two are in this frame of mind...
More on that in my next...
- Vinay Hardikar
(The writer has been working in the public sphere of Maharashtra for the last five decades. His versatile personality has several dimensions, but the primary ones remain to be that of an established writer, journalist, editor, critic, activist, and teacher.)
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