By Jawhar Sircar

An opposition MP reflects on the chaos and repression in the house as the BJP government scrambles to prevent the Opposition from having its say.

Now that as many as 14 Lok Sabha MPs, including senior ones like DMK’s Kanimozhi and Trinamool Congress’s Rajya Sabha leader Derek O’Brien, have all been suspended, let’s get the facts clear. They were all protesting vociferously against the Union home minister’s failure to ensure security of parliament on December 13. The Bharatiya Janata Party MP who was responsible for permitting those who burst tear-gas canisters in the Lok Sabha is scot free till the time of writing. The irony is, however, that 15 Opposition MPs were punished, on the majority-party BJP’s resolution, for shouting heated slogans (defying the chair) and demanding that the prime minister or the home minister explain to parliament why the major security lapse happened.
This is very sad and has suddenly turned a tepid Delhi winter and a pleasantly cool winter session of parliament into a rather hot one — just in a day or two. One has observed that every recent parliament session often becomes too sizzling as the Opposition just cannot get its grievances across, without outbursts. As expected, instead of soothing ruffled feathers, the most intolerant government in India after independence usually exacerbates the situation. It uses its brute majority to steamroll dissent and suspend protesters, and a self-respecting Opposition cannot gulp it down in silence. In one day, the absolute calm with which the 262nd session began, and continued for so many days, has suddenly been shattered. The treasury benches appear to revel not only in dangling provocations (the home minister could jolly well have come or the prime minister should have spoken on Manipur), but also seems to hope that the consequential volcanic outpourings of the Opposition’s angst somehow cross the red line — so that they could display their might, by imposing penalties.
But the unreal calm and cool of the first ten days was actually required by parliamentarians, irrespective of party poll, to tackle and negotiate the unusually complex architecture of the new parliament building. True, members had undergone a dress rehearsal in the new building during the short four-day ‘special session’ that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had summoned on September 18. Modi had expected the session to celebrate the shift of parliament from the old building to the new nouveau riche edifice. But so uninspiring was the transition that MPs had a hard time stifling yawns. They were more than annoyed at the maze within the new House, replete with galleries that showcase India’s glories — which, incidentally, occupy valuable space but hardly get visitors. The second reason for the prime minister summoning the special session was to bask in the glory of what he considered was his remarkable presidentship of the G20 club. But, here again, except a few die-hard sycophants, no one even mentioned the imagined grandeur and the highly-forgettable enforced pageantry throughout the country.
The much-hyped but disappointingly underwhelming new parliament building was confusing even to the parliament staff — as very few were allowed to enter the new building before inauguration. There was no prior notice to MPs by this hush-hush regime; no mental preparation, or even time to make last minute user-driven modifications. Hence, hapless parliamentarians and officials are now burdened forever (or at least for the coming decades) with an unusually complicated architecture. It conveys no ‘school’ of architecture, but it surely reflects the tastes of an unusually aggressive prime minister and his user-friendly, minion architect who is foisted with duties far above his capabilities.
Modi and his architect have cleaved parliament by rendering asunder the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. They have effectively erected a ‘wall’ by elongating and complicating the path between them. The previous Central Hall, that was situated between the two chambers, where MPs from both Houses and all parties could meet and share coffee, snacks and politics, has now been eliminated – under Modi’s divide and rule policy. Even the common canteen has been split into two and placed wide apart, and both lack grandeur. They look like upgraded college canteens or mid-market cafes. The regime’s insecurity ensures that parliamentarians from one House never get to see their colleagues from the the other. The two new Houses effectively convey corporate distancing through unnecessarily large spaces (ostensibly for future expansion of membership), and have surely hurt the proximity, warmth and bonhomie that existed in the previous building.
The high ceilings attempt to portray some inexplicable architectural style, and are accompanied by some insipid motifs and garish scribbly art forms. Ultimately, the high ceilings combine with lateral distancing to segregate members, who find difficulty in hearing what is being said, with using headphones. To many, marshals in pink coats and short shiny turbans look less impressive than the earlier ones in dark prince-coats and flaring white safa-turbans. There is also a visible saffronisation of dresses of officials in the Rajya Sabha and the traditional default colour of maroon appears to have been replaced with a colour that is between orange and saffron. In fact, the costume designer has messed it all up, without doubt. Appearances of the interior of parliament do matter a lot as they are telecast throughout the country and help buttress a narrative.
The glaring nouveau riche character of the new building is apparent everywhere. Even the cheap laser-cut jalis affixed on the outer walls are so definitely inferior to the skilled hand-chiselled ones that adorn the classical old parliament. One can count a larger number of Indic symbols and motifs in the colonial edifice, as compared to this one — that’s neither desi nor firangi. The lounges are surely a welcome addition, Wi-Fi services appear to have improved and the personal devices on members’ tables may be amenable to better utilisation if they came with computer mouses. The point is that the new triangular building will remain quite difficult to manoeuvre and the clear separation between the two Houses is a strategic trick that could only be effected by hegemonic minds.
But before we return to the suspensions, we must mention the patently unfair and summary manner in which a firebrand Lok Sabha MP of the Trinamool Congress was expelled. It not our business to question the wisdom of the chair outside the House, but one is duty-bound to clarify the flow of events beyond what has been reported in patches. Mahua Moitra was expelled through a muscular political majority in the Lok Sabha in what appeared to be a pre-decided plan, without a chance to explain her side and without any discussion in House. Obviously, this has led to an uproar within and outside parliament and this does not behove well for the highest institution of democracy. The ‘peace’ that prevailed in the first week was shattered quite rudely just before the weekend began.
Then came December 13. Twenty-two years ago, parliament had been attacked by terrorists and on this very unforgettable day, when nine persons had lost their lives. The prime minister and many leaders and MPs assembled in the morning to pay their homage at a memorial just outside the old parliament building. Obviously, there were innumerable ‘photo opportunities’. But then, in the afternoon, history almost repeated itself as some protesters jumped into the Lok Sabha from the visitor’s gallery and burst canisters of brightly coloured ‘tear gas’. It was a terrible violation of the security ring that is meant to protect parliament and one shudders to think what would have happened if they had burst bombs or grenades in the Lok Sabha. Members were visibly shaken and agitated — but neither the otherwise-articulate prime minister nor his ever-confident home minister thought it important enough to make a statement in either or both Houses.
It is in this context that the hitherto-cooperative Opposition demanded their presence the next morning in both Houses — to come forth and explain what it had done so far and planned to do. When the government refused to show any light, heat is all that the Opposition can work and radiate — and face yellow cards and red cards for it. This is precisely what happened on December 14. In a show of unity, the entire Opposition was on its feet demanding statements from the government, but it happened to be beyond the decided ‘Business of the House’. The treasury were expected to rise to the occasion – as it had done in the past with forward-looking leaders like Pranab Mukherjee and Arun Jaitley. Instead, they chose to be totally intolerant of discussion and pounced on emotional outbursts of the Opposition to ensured (through their majority) that 15 MPs were suspended. In addition, O’Brien’s agitation will now be examined by the privileges committee.
A tepid winter session is this on the hot boil once again, and more than parliament, it is democracy that is under real strain.

Jawhar Sircar is a Rajya Sabha member of the Trinamool Congress. He has been culture secretary in the Government of India and CEO of Prasar Bharati.

Courtesy: The Wire

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