In a free-wheeling conversation with Karan Thapar for Rajya Sabha TV, outgoing vice president Hamid Ansari, on his last day in office, talked about a range of problems afflicting Indian society. From showing concern about the ever-escalating violence against minorities in the name of cow protection to a renewed assertion of majoritarian-cultural nationalism, he expressed his fears about the direction that Indian society has taken.
Ansari said that he has had numerous conversations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet regarding the increasing incidents of violence but also indicated a lack of seriousness on the part of the prime minister and his cabinet to control the volatile situation at hand.
“Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason. Now it is a matter of judgement, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale,” said Ansari on how his concerns were addressed by the Modi government.
Stressing on the point that India has been a plural society for centuries, and not just the past 70 years, he said that many recent developments in India – like the judicial decisions to impose the national anthem and the national song or a concerted attack on minorities leading to a growing sense of insecurity among Muslims – reflect the prevailing atmosphere in society. The cultural aggression and arrogant nationalism, he said, has arisen from a a deep sense of insecurity and may be detrimental to India’s future. “This propensity to be able to assert your nationalism day in and day out is unnecessary,” he said.
He added that while tolerance to different cultures and religions is a “good virtue”, it may not be a “sufficient” virtue and that India needs to “take the next step and go from tolerance to acceptance.”
Indirectly criticising the largely militaristic approach of the Modi government to resolve the Kashmir impasse, he said that the “(Kashmir) problem is and has always been primarily a political problem. And it has to be addressed politically.” He added that his impression is that politicians today are ducking the actual issues in Kashmir.
Again, differing from the Union government, which is aggressively pursuing the courts to ban the practice of triple talaq among Muslims, he said that judicial intervening in the matter is unnecessary and that reform should come from within the community. “Firstly, it (triple talaq) is a social aberration, it is not a religious requirement. The religious requirement is crystal clear, emphatic, there are no two views about it but patriarchy, social customs have all crept into it to create a situation which is highly undesirable… the people have to understand the basics of the faith, what has happened is that the tradition has overtaken the essentials of faith..,” he said.
He further talked about his tenure as vice president and chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, and his relationships with current political dispensation, and urged governments to nominate only serious members to the Rajya Sabha.
The full text of the interview, which will be telecast on Rajya Sabha TV at 8 pm on August 10, is below, with sub-headings added by The Wire.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a very special interview on Rajya Sabha TV. Today is Hamid Ansari’s last day as vice president of India. He’s held the job for ten years – no one has held it longer – and only one of his predecessors, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, has held it for as long.
Before he became vice president, Mr Ansari was India’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Iran, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He was also high commissioner to Australia as well as India’s permanent representative to United Nations in New York.
Mr Ansari has also been chairman of the National Commission for Minorities as well as vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University.
Today, in this exclusive interview, Mr Ansari will look back on his career and, in particular, on his ten years as vice president as well as the chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha that went with that job. And I’ve been told that Mr Ansari is happy for me to ask him any question I want.
KT: Mr Vice President, let me start with a rather unusual question – you were born on April Fool’s day in 1937. Is that the secret of your success?
Hamid Ansari: Well most of my life I got away without having to give a birthday party. And that tradition was broken only on my first birthday in this House, when a message came in the morning that Dr and Mrs Manmohan Singh would wish to come and wish you happy birthday. I couldn’t say no to that!
The restrictions that come with being VP
KT: Now, you’ve spent ten years as vice president, and as I said, no one has spent more time as vice president than that – what did it mean to you, a career diplomat, to be vice president of India?
HA: Well, I said right in the beginning that every citizen is in a sense, a political creature. But being in the thick of things was a new experience, a novel experience.
KT: Did the protocol, did the prestige become inhibiting for someone who was quite a free bird? Or was it something that you were to accustomed to as a high commissioner and as an ambassador?
HA: Well, yes but it was a different kind of constraint which one went through as the representative of the country. This was a different kind of thing – there were constraints on movement and things like that for understandable reasons. One had to live with it.
KT: Was it exciting and fun or was it at times intimidating and restrictive as well?
HA: Well, not intimidating, but restrictive – yes!
KT: In other words, you couldn’t do half the things that you would have liked to do because your position simply didn’t permit it.
HA: Couldn’t walk down Chandni Chowk.
KT: And a couple of other things that I suppose, we shouldn’t mention…Let me put it like this, as vice president you’ve had this unique and privileged vantage point to look at the functioning of the Indian political system. This is also the 70th year of our independence – has our political system functioned effectively and smoothly? Or is it often dysfunctional and perhaps disruptive?
HA: It is both. It has been both. Two things have happened. Over a period of 70 years, democracy has deepened in the country. There’s much greater voter participation, much greater public interest in what is happening in the political field. On the other hand, the functioning of political institutions in the country at various levels, is not at its best.
KT: And is that because of an individual responsibility, presumably it must be?
HA: Well, collectively, yes. Not individually, but collectively.
KT: So, has the quality of the people who man institutions deteriorated, as the institutions themselves have become more established?
HA: No, the quality has not deteriorated but the mannerisms have changed. I mean, you could not imagine, for example, in early/mid 50s or even in 60s, disruptions of the kind that take place in the House today.
The president-VP relationship
KT: I want very much to talk to you about the functioning of the Upper House and your role as chairman of the Rajya Sabha, but I’ll come to that in a moment’s time. Let us first talk about your experiences as vice president. You served as vice president under two very different presidents – Pratibha Patil for five years and Pranab Mukherjee for five. How did they compare with each other?
HA: No, that wouldn’t be a fair thing to do. I think each individual, as the head of the republic, has his or her own way of doing things. And, frankly speaking, the vice president has only a kind of ceremonial relationship with the presidentship of the country.
KT: In other words, you have to fit in where there is room?
HA: Yes…I mean there are a lot of ceremonial functions in which you are together – you are invited to Rashtrapati Bhavan – I would go and periodically chat with the presidents on matters of interest or general matters.
KT: Did you find that your role as vice president changed because of the nature of character of the president who was present?
HA: Well, subjects change…of course. With President Mukherjee one could go over the whole history of modern Indian democracy. With Pratibhaji, it was a different kind of conversation.
KT: Because their personalities and their interests were different?
HA: Yes, yes.
KT: You also have served for just over two weeks with the new president – President Kovind. How has he started? What sort of start has he had?
HA: Well, I had the benefit of knowing President Kovind before he became president. Because as governor of Bihar, there were several occasions on which I visited Patna and we had good conversations.
KT: Is he an easy person to get on with?
HA: Oh yes, oh yes.
KT: So there was a relationship with him, that in a sense, you might not have had with Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukherjee, because you knew him before he became president.
HA: No…I knew President Mukherjee well before that – as a minister in the government of Indiraji, and much later as the minister in the government of Mr Narasimha Rao. I was PR in New York when he came as a minister of external affairs.
KT: And these friendships, these relationships make a difference to the role?
HA: Obviously, obviously.
Narendra Modi and Manmohan Singh
KT: You were also vice president between two very different prime ministerships. There was Manmohan Singh to begin with and Narendra Modi thereafter. Both men, we all know, are very different. Are there senses in which they are similar, which you may be aware of but the audience perhaps doesn’t know?
HA: I think that would require a little time to dilate on.
KT: Because you can’t say…
HA: Because the personalities are very different. The functioning styles are very different. Now, you may find common points in their functioning styles. Personalities are obvious to everyone, I don’t have to talk about it.
KT: Does the vice president have a fairly close relationship with the prime minister of the day? Or is it a very formal one?
HA: It’s most of the time a formal relationship but there are occasions when there are very serious conversations.
KT: You mentioned that on your first birthday as vice president, Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife came over to wish you. I imagine you’ve had three birthdays after Mr Modi took over. Has Mr Modi been to wish you regularly?
HA: Regularly yes. I think the last occasion he was away he sent a message. But first two occasions, yes.
KT: He was there.
HA: Yes, he did, yes.
Ram Madhav’s public criticism
KT: Now one of the things that has happened and attracted enormous attention, because it is something that has never happened before, was in 2015 when a senior leader of the BJP, he was general secretary then, he still is general secretary now, Ram Madhav tweeted in public criticising your behaviour as vice president. He said that you had deliberately not participated in Yoga Day functions that year. And he also added that Rajya Sabha TV, which falls under your charge, hadn’t covered the event. Now, I know that Mr Madhav both apologised and deleted the tweets but as I said that never before has the general secretary of a ruling party publicly questioned, leave aside criticised, the vice president. Were you surprised and taken aback by that?
HA: Surprised yes, because the facts were well known and very clear, and there were my colleagues in office who put the public wise to it very quickly. There was no ambiguity, there was no confusion.
KT: Were you upset that this had happened?
HA: Not really.
KT: Because it was a breach of protocols to say the least?
HA: Well yes, but protocol is breached from time to time.
KT: Did you take up the matter with the prime minister?
KT: So, in other words, you deliberately and consciously chose to forget it and let it go?
HA: Not forget. It was absurd to begin with and I left it at that.
KT: Did the gentlemen ever personally apologise or personally explained what he had done?
HA: Let’s not talk about that.
Violence against Africans in India
KT: Something else that you did when you were vice president was to travel extensively in Africa. In the last five years alone you have travelled to ten different countries. But many of those visits happened at a time when the number of attacks on Africans in India was steadily growing – each attack seemed to be worse than the last and it was creating enormous concern particularly amongst the African ambassadors who publicly commented with anger.
KT: Did the heads of states you visited bring up this matter?
HA: Not that I recollect. No.
KT: So they were diplomatic enough not to touch on a subject that could have been awkward for you to handle?
HA: Well, yes, but they did not touch upon it. We had very good conversations in each one of those visits. And given the totality of the Indo-African relationship and the background to that relationship, my wife and I were very well received in each one of those countries.
KT: Now, the official position of the government of India articulated by the spokesperson of the MEA and the foreign minister was that these are not racist attacks but the African ambassadors angrily dissented, they did so publicly, and large sections of the media was convinced that this was racism. As someone who was an intelligent observer, although watching from behind the vice president’s house, what was your opinion? Was this an instance of Indian racism or simply law and order?
HA: Well, it is scandalous to begin with. It was the failure of law and order and it was the failure of public behaviour. There can’t be two views on a situation like this wherever it takes place, anywhere it takes place.
KT: So, was the official response the right one or should they have been more willing to accept that this is more than just law and order?
HA: Could have been more forthcoming.
KT: They could have and should have been more forthcoming.
Growing intolerance in India
KT: That’s a very important point you have said. I want to use this moment, Mr Vice President to talk about the general situation in the country today because I know it is one that concerns large sections of the country. Hardly a day goes by without us reading about cow vigilante attacks, earlier we read about lynchings, we have read about beef bans, people who refuse to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ have been publicly told that they should leave the country, there have been accusations of love jihad, ghar wapsi campaigns and even killings of rationalists. How do you view all of this? Sitting in this house, how did you view all of this?
HA: Breakdown of Indian values, breakdown of the ability of the authorities at different levels in different places to be able to enforce what should be normal law enforcing work and overall the very fact that Indianness of any citizen being questioned is a disturbing thought.
KT: Why were Indian values breaking down suddenly?
HA: Because we are a plural society that for centuries, not for 70 years, has lived in a certain ambience of acceptance.
KT: And that ambience is suddenly changing?
HA: It is under threat.
KT: Today, as we speak, there are many who believe we are becoming an intolerant country. You have read about these articles in papers, you have seen these debates in television. Do you fear that yourself?
HA: Yes, because I interact with fellow citizens and there are great many people from different walks of life who come and talk about it.
KT: So you share the concern that intolerance is growing in India?
HA: Yes and I spoke about it in my last speech in Bengaluru a few days back.
KT: You did and I want to quote you on that in a moment’s time. But have you ever shared your concerns, your apprehensions with the prime minister or with the government?
HA: Yes.. yes. But what passes between the vice president and the prime minister in the nature of things must remain in the domain of privileged conversation.
KT: Understandably, but the important point is that as vice president you felt a need, a moral need, to raise this issue with the prime minister and you did do so.
HA: With the ministers also and with the prime minister also.
KT: I want to ask you about their response, were you satisfied?
HA: Well, there is always an explanation and there is always a reason. Now it is a matter of judgment, whether you accept the explanation, you accept the reasoning and its rationale.
Courts imposing national anthem and national song
KT: Once again that’s a very important answer and the wise will certainly be able to understand what you are saying. Let me put it like this, something else has also happened. In the last few months the Supreme Court has ruled that ‘Jana Gana Mana’ must be played before every single film screening. In more recent times the Madras high court has ruled that ‘Vande Mataram’ must be sung at least once a week in Tamil Nadu schools and colleges and at least once a month in government offices and private establishments. Once again, these two rulings have divided public opinion. How do you view them? Do you see them as any example of judicial overreach or is it essential for us to pay this exaggerated obeisance to the national anthem and national song because our nationalism requires it?
HA: The courts are a part of society. So what the courts tend to say sometimes is reflective of what the prevailing atmosphere in society is. I call that a sense of insecurity.
KT: A sense of insecurity reflected by the judges in what should be their considered opinion?
HA: Not of the judges. No. I am talking of the public sense. This propensity to be able to assert your nationalism day in and day out is unnecessary. I am an Indian and that is it.
KT: And it should be taken for granted that every Indian is loyal to the country? You don’t have to prove it.
HA: Oh absolutely. Oh absolutely.
KT: In which case when the judges require this through their rulings they are reflecting something that they should, hopefully, have risen above rather than become creatures of.
HA: Well again it is accepted practice not to comment on judges and I shall not.
KT: I understand.
An illiberal nationalism
KT: Let me then come to a speech you made on Sunday in Bangalore, because I think it is one of the most important speeches made by a vice president while still in office. I want to quote from that speech. You said the version of nationalism that places cultural commitments at its core is usually perceived as the most conservative and illiberal form of nationalism. It promotes intolerance and arrogant patriotism. To me and to many others like me there was that distinct feeling that you were actually commenting on what’s happening today.
KT: Am I right?
KT: So you were talking with specific reference to the mood of the country in 2017?
HA: Oh absolutely.
KT: Can you give the audience a sense of why you felt this was an important thing to say.. Because vice presidents normally don’t speak out in this way. Why did you deliberately choose to do so?
HA: No, vice presidents do speak out and I have in the last ten years spoken out again and again on matters that I think needed to be aired in public. So it was not unusual, at least not for me, to speak about certain issues about which I think needed to be discussed. There is to each individual a manner of speaking; I stuck to my manner of speaking.
KT: And you deliberately choose a moment to point out, that this exaggerated concept of nationalism, this unnecessary requirement of having to keep proving you are patriotic and nationalist is unhealthy. It makes for intolerance and arrogance – that is a point you felt a personal need to make?
HA: Yes. And I am not the only one in the country; a great many people feel the same way.
KT: Your speech went one step further, in that speech you also quoted Swami Vivekanand, who is widely believed to be the favourite of the present government and this was the quotation, “We must not only tolerate other religions, but positively embrace them as truth is the basis of all religions”. Are you beginning to feel that there are some religions that are deliberately being distanced, perhaps even discriminated against?
HA: You see, why do we talk about tolerance… Because you feel the need to tolerate something which may not entirely be to your scheme of things. But this has been my point and this is not the only occasion in which I have spoken about. Tolerance is a good virtue, but it is not a sufficient virtue, and therefore you have to take the next step and go from tolerance to acceptance.
KT: And that acceptance is not happening today..
HA: Its not happening by and large.
KT: I will tell you from my mind why that Swami Vivekananda quotation is so important. It’s because in recent years, and I mean in recent years, not just weeks and months, the string of comments made by BJP men, members, ministers as well as leading figures of the Sangh parivar seem to target the Muslim community in particular. I won’t name people, but there was a minister who talked about ‘Haram Zade’ and ‘Ram Zade’. There was a chief minister who said Muslims are welcome in India but they must give up eating beef, there was the head of the RSS who said that all Indians are Hindus and immediately a senior minister added and Hindutva is the identity of India and there was an MP who went on to become a chief minister who said that for every Hindu girl converted to Islam, he would personally convert 100 Muslim girls to Hinduism. You are not just vice president, you are also a Muslim sitting and hearing this, and how did you as an individual feel on these comments were being made and made by people in power and positions of responsibility?
HA: I will not talk about political people or political parties, but to me every time such a comment appeared or came to my knowledge; I mean my first reaction was that, A: the person is ignorant, B: that he is prejudiced and C: he does not fit into the framework that India has always prided to itself on, which is to be accommodative society.
KT: When these comments were made, at the time, did you as vice president take them up with the government?
HA: No, I don’t think it was necessary for me to take individual complaints with the government, there was enough being said, this is an open society and enough has been said in criticism of these viewpoints publicly…
KT: In other words, there was no need for you to take it up, because if they had read in the papers, kept their ears open they knew how the country felt about such comments
HA: Oh I am sure they did.
KT: What about the speech you made on Sunday, which I said is a seminal speech, on which you spoken about the nationalism being practiced as intolerance and arrogance. Have you had any response from the government or the ministers about that speech?
HA: I don’t think it is necessary to have a response, I didn’t expect any, I mean there have been public reactions to it, there have been media reactions to it, editorial comments to it and by and large I think the themes I touched on have resonated with the prevailing views.
Apprehensions in Indian Muslims
KT: Many people say that as a result of such comments, as a result of the mood they have created, the Muslim community is apprehensive, its feeling insecure. Is that a correct assessment of how Indians Muslims feel or it is an exaggerated one?
HA: Yes it is a correct assessment, from all I hear from different quarters, the country; I heard the same thing in Bangalore, I have heard from other parts of the country, I hear more about in north India, there is a feeling of unease, a sense of insecurity is creeping in
KT: Are they beginning to feel they are not wanted?
HA: I would not go that far, there is a sense of insecurity
KT: Now, in 2015, when you were addressing the golden jubilee celebrations of all India Majlis-e-Mashawarat, you said something very important, it was a message in a sense, to Indian Muslims from a fellow Muslim, I want to quote bits of that.
“Significant sections of the Muslim society is trapped in a vicious circle, between tradition which is sacrosanct and modernity which has become a tainted expression.” I want to ask you in simple words, to explain what was the message you were giving
HA: The message was that you have to move with times, you have to live with the requirements of the occasion, do not create for oneself or one’s fellow beings an imaginary situation which is centuries back, when things were very different, I mean the whole idea was, that what are the challenges today… The challenges today are challenges of development. What are the requirements for development? You keep up with the times, educate yourself and compete…
KT: …don’t cut yourself off from contemporary India, immerse yourself more fully.
HA: Absolutely, absolutely. And that is the message I have been giving, wherever I have had an opportunity, that you have to change with times.
Affirmative action for Muslims
KT: In that same speech, you also said something else that struck me as important. The official objective of ‘Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikaas‘ is commendable, a pre-requisite for this is affirmative action, to ensure a common starting point. Would you be in favour of some form of reservation for Muslims?
HA: In Indian vocabulary, social and official vocabulary, reservation has come to acquire a certain connotation which is not necessarily positive.
KT: Affirmative action.
HA: Affirmative action is a much better expression, you take action wherever it is necessary for whoever it is necessary.
KT: And that is required for Muslims today. And governments must address themselves to that.
HA: Oh absolutely. Not just the Muslims, any segment of society. If the requirement is to have comprehensive development. If the requirement is that everybody shall move, take one step forward and keep taking steps forward then all have to be at the same starting point. And if you are at the same starting point and there are some who are not at the starting point you have to bring them up to the starting point.
KT: Now an issue that has dominated the news in recent months concerning the Muslim community is this debate about triple talaq and I want to ask you where do you as a Muslim stand on it? Do you believe that this is an issue for the courts to sort out because it is a matter to do with gender rights and gender justice, or is it an issue best left for the Muslim community to resolve internally themselves?
HA: Firstly, it is a social aberration, it is not a religious requirement. The religious requirement is crystal clear, emphatic, there are no two views about it. But patriarchy, social customs have all crept into it to create a situation which is highly undesirable.
KT: So should the court step in?
HA: You don’t have to, the reform has to come from within the community.
KT: Would it be wrong for the courts to step in?
HA: The courts can say that we don’t recognise it. That’s all. I mean a marriage has to be recognised on certain occasions by the system of the state. And if a state functionary at a particular point of time refuses to recognise a happening which may be the product of a triple talaq, that’s it.
KT: So the courts will simply formally decree we don’t recognise triple talaq but the reform has to happen internally from within the community?
HA: Exactly. It has to. You see, the people have to understand the basics of the faith. What has happened is that the tradition has overtaken the essentials of faith, therefore modernity has to be caught up with, without letting go of tradition. You address modernity with tradition and tradition with modernity.
KT: You can’t separate the two artificially.
HA: You can’t separate the two and you know it is quite impossible to do that.
KT: Again, you answered very clearly and the intelligent will immediately discern what you are saying. My last question before I take a break – given the fact that Muslims are feeling insecure, apprehensive, uncertain; given the sort of political rhetoric that keeps resonating, are you worried that the number of Indian Muslims get attracted to ideologies like al-Qaeda or ISIS could start increasing sharply? There are already some who have been attracted and have joined up, could that number grow sizeably or is that an exaggerated fear?
HA: No, I don’t think. The official figure estimates are that if there are numbers they are miniscule. I think the Muslim in India is sui generis. Mind you, every seventh citizen of India is a Muslim just as every fifth citizen belongs to a religious minority. These are facts on the ground. There is no evidence that any process of extremist indoctrination is underway in India, an individual can always go off the track.
KT: Once again that is a very clear answer, do not exaggerate the fear that is sometimes voiced in papers and television that Indian Muslims could start embracing al-Qaeda or ISIS?
HA: Oh absolutely. You know those are products of local situations in certain contingencies. That situation does not prevail here and I hope it never does prevail.
KT: Let’s take a break at that point. Mr Vice President when I come back I want to turn as I said I would earlier to your role as chairman of the Rajya Sabha and in particular talk with you about the functioning of the upper house and whether it lives up to the expectations Indian democracy and the Indian people have of it. We will be back in a moment’s time, don’t go away there is a lot more to discuss with Hamid Ansari. See you after the break.
Being Rajya Sabha chairman
KT: Welcome back to a special interview for Rajya Sabha TV with Hamid Ansari on his last day as vice president of India. Mr Ansari lets talk about your job as chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Ten years ago when you first presided over the upper house there were many people, including your friends, who were little nervous as they thought, he has no experience of this, will he be able to do it. Were you apprehensive on that first day?
HA: No, only to the extent that any new situation you approach diffidently.
KT: But you had the confidence not to show it because it certainly didn’t show on your face. Inside were there moments when you said to yourself what am I letting myself in for?
HA: Well, chairing a meeting was a new experience, there were other kinds of meetings which had been chaired in different points in life, so chairing a meeting was just that.
KT: Except that in the Rajya Sabha, particularly as the years went on you ended up with a house that acquired a reputation for frequent disruptions, several members who were unruly and indisciplined. And I will be honest with you not only did this shock the Indian people when they saw it on television but this sort of behaviour would have been intolerable in the British or Australian parliaments, to name just two. And people often ask why isn’t Hamid Ansari asserting himself, why isn’t he imposing more discipline?
HA: Well the answer is very simple… the chair of the house be it the speaker of Lok Sabha or the chairman of Rajya Sabha, is a referee… is an umpire in a cricket match. The referee is given a rule book and the referee cannot go beyond the rule book. Rules were made at a different stage in history when certain forms of behaviour were acceptable and certain forms of behaviour were not imagined. Things have changed over time, Indian society has changed over time, public behaviour has changed over time, we have not caught up with it.
KT: It’s interesting you talk about the rule book. Actually the rule book could have permitted you to name and shame, the rule book could have permitted you to even suspend… In fact, Subhash Kashyap once said instead of repeated adjournments – and the Rajya Sabha seems to be adjourned two three times a day – why doesn’t Mr Ansari, why doesn’t his deputy enforce the rules ?
HA: Because they know what the rules say and what their powers are. There are only two rules in the Rajya Sabha rulebooks – an individual member may be named and asked to withdraw. That is one rule. The other rule is that a motion in the house is put forward and [it] is carried.
KT: Did you often name and ask members to withdraw?
HA: On one occasion I told a member he was skating very close to the rule. And he picked up his papers and walked out. I didn’t tell him to walk out.
KT: I tell you why I ask this question…
HA: …On another occasion I did ask a member to withdraw…
KT: And he did.
HA: He did.
KT: I’ll tell you why I asked this question … I was once in Australia and I was at the house of representatives, and to my astonishment and also to my delight I heard the speaker say to the prime minister that she will withdraw and apologise for the comment she made about Tony Abbot who was then the leader of the opposition. The prime minister was reluctant to do so and did so inadequately, and the speaker interrupted and in a strong tone said that the prime minister will withdraw and at once the prime minister did. And the speaker simply said: thank you, and carried on. People often wonder why aren’t our presiding officers as stern and tough as that?
HA: Indian culture.
KT: You mean our ministers and MPs won’t take it?
HA: They would, pushed to the wall, they would but our culture is to be less than stern and therefore you hint, you insinuate, you suggest but you don’t go all the way.
KT: And when that hinting and insinuation doesn’t make its point then you have to accept the bedlam that ensues.
HA: No, you adjourn and then you talk. You see there is a process, every disruption does not mean that it is a stand-off. There is a point being scored in every disruption or which leads to a disruption
KT: But the interesting point is that Indian culture doesn’t allow you to be as much of a disciplinarian as the speaker of the house of commons can be and gets away with it.
HA: Because the social atmosphere is different.
KT: One of the problems is that the Rajya Sabha has a different composition to the Lower House – the government has a majority in the Lower House. It does not or at least until very recently it did not have anything like the same number in the Upper House. How conscious were you of that when you handled the Rajya Sabha?
HA: No, it did not matter at all. It was not the first time in the history of Indian parliament that such a situation as risen. The composition of the house has very little to do with what the role of the chair is. The chair is a referee in a match – whether this side is playing better or that side is playing worse is no concern of the chair.
KT: And you saw yourself as a referee?
KT: The problem is, and you probably remember this better than me, in December 2011, when the Manmohan Singh government was in power, you got sharply criticised by the BJP that were in opposition because they said you were guilty of not being an impartial referee, they said you are guilty of partisanship. It happened at the end of the debate on the Lok Pal Bill when people were expecting a vote and you ended up adjourning the house sine die, and the BJP said you have done this because the government would have lost the vote and you were protecting Manmohan Singh’s government. And as I said, Arun Jaitley publicly said that this was partisan behaviour and I believe Yogendra Yadav called it match fixing. Looking back…was that an error of judgment or would you defend your decision?
HA: Absolutely not… absolutely not. What was done that evening was done exactly in terms of rules and procedures because what the public does not know is that parliament meets for the duration it meets under a command from the head of state. Which is initiated at the urging of the government. So if the president of India says that the parliament would meet from the first till the 31st of the month that’s it … unless it is extended by the government through the president again it cannot [extend to] the next day.
KT: And at midnight that time had run out so you had to adjourn.
HA: Absolutely… otherwise it would have been an Indian version of the Long Parliament.
Arun Jaitley’s suggested reforms to the Rajya Sabha
KT: Now Arun Jaitley, probably in response to the problem that the government has getting its legislation passed in the Rajya Sabha, has made two proposals, both in a sense adopted from conventions and practices of the British House of Lords, and I want to bounce them off you. The first is he says that India need something like Britain’s Salisbury Convention whereby any legislation that is part of a manifesto commitment of the government will be passed by the Upper House even if the government doesn’t have a majority in the Upper House. The critical factor being, this is a manifesto commitment. Do you think we need something like that?
HA: The short answer is that the Rajya Sabha is not the House of Lords and while the Salisbury Convention has been talked about, it does not apply – it is not relevant to Indian conditions. It [Rajya Sabha] is a consciously-created independent house and if you look at the text of the constitution, wherever the two houses are mentioned, the Rajya Sabha or the council of states is mentioned before Lok Sabha is mentioned. The two houses have been created deliberately, consciously, purposefully and that purpose remains as valid today as it was done.
KT: Salisbury Convention, that would seek to circumvent in a way the powers and prerogative of the Upper House, would be unfitting and unconstitutional in India.
KT: The second suggestion, once again Mr Jaitley is borrowing from the British political system, is that any legislation passed by the Lower House cannot be held up for more than a year by the Upper House in India, citing the parliamentary act in Britain of 1911 as amended in 1949. Do you think something similar should apply in India or again would you say this is unconstitutional, it undermines the independent standing of the Rajya Sabha?
HA: Look, why was a second house necessary either in the Indian parliament or in Australian parliament or Canadian parliament or American senate for that matter – I mean in our case it was partly to reflect the diversity of India. Then, secondly, a more substantive and immediate requirement was a kind of second look at legislation.
Because what is happening is, and I’ve said this in my Bangalore speech, that unlike the 1950s and early 60s, when parliament used to sit for 100 days, today it is sitting almost half the time, which means enough time is not available either for deliberation of legislation or on accountability of the government or in discussions of issues of public interest…
KT: So, don’t curtail it further…
HA: You cannot curtail it further without abrogating the responsibility…
KT: So, once again, a cut-off which means that the Upper House cannot hold back legislation passed for more than a year, would not fit into India’s political system, it may apply in Britain, because the House of Lords is not an elected House. Rajya Sabha is not just an elected House, it also represents the states, which the Lower House may not do quite the same way and certainly the House of Lords doesn’t either.
HA: Oh absolutely, and Rajya Sabha is a responsible House, most of the time all the political parties are represented by senior people… people with great experience of public life in different wants…
KT: … and their deliberation is important…
HA: It’s critically important.
Use and abuse of money bills
KT: Now in the mean time, there is also a criticism made by the Opposition, particularly the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, to the way the government treats the Rajya Sabha… they say quite often critical bills are passed off as money bills when they are quite clearly not money bills, and it’s only done to facilitate the easy passage of legislation and the two that have come to mind immediately are the recent finance Bill and the Aadhaar Bill. Now you were the chairman of the Rajya Sabha when this happened. Do you think that here the Opposition has a good case?
HA: Well, since the matter is before the Supreme Court, I should not comment on it. But there is certainly no merit in extending what is a money bill to a point when its ceases to be a money bill and transforms itself to an organisational bill.
KT: In which case, do we need to relook and perhaps rethink the power of the speaker of the Lok Sabha to decide what is and what isn’t a money bill and the fact that her decision thereafter can’t be challenged, should that be re-looked at?
HA: I don’t comment on the power of the honourable speaker and in any case this matter is before the Supreme Court, so let us wait.
KT: Let me ask you a slightly different question, not in terms of commenting on the speaker’s power, but should a critical decision that affects not just what sort of legislation it is but more importantly whether the Rajya Sabha can then meaningfully discuss it or vote on it – should that decision be taken jointly both by the speaker of the Lower House as well as the chairman of the Upper House?
HA: I would not comment on that and let the political system think about it and we all wait to have some procedures.
KT: But it is something that the political system should think about …
HA: It is already in the domain of discussion and in the domain of the judiciary… so let’s see…
Nominations to the Rajya Sabha
KT: Now another issue that has attracted attention in recent weeks is what the press calls the deplorable attendance of nominated MPs like Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha, to just name those two to start with. PRS has calculated that their percentage attendance in five years has been 7% and 5%… My question is simple, should this sort of deplorable attendance be tolerated or should it be grounds for terminating the membership of someone who clearly neither has the time nor the inclination to want to be a Rajya Sabha member?
HA: What PRS has aired publicly is something which has been known to the secretariat for a long time, but please pay attention to the procedure, any member who wishes to be absent from the functioning of the House puts in a request, and the request is put by the chair to the House and the House approves the absence…
KT: So each of these people have already had their absence cleared not just by the chair but through the chair by the House.
HA: Absolutely, how else would they be absent!
KT: The House may be more understanding and willing to allow such nominated members to be absent, but the country feels, that actually, they should be present and even if they don’t want to debate at least be sitting. As I said, Sachin and Rekha are not the only two this was also proved to be the case with Lata Mangeshkar when she was a member, M.F. Husain, Mrinal Sen and several others. Do we therefore need to rethink about the sort of people we nominate? So that we’re more sure that when nominated, they will participate and will make time, rather than treated as an adornment…
HA: What was the rationale of nominations? The thought process behind it was that they would provide an input from a different perspective into the national law making process.
KT: But they can only do that if they are present and participating…
HA: Precisely, and therefore the responsibility for nominating them rests with governments… successive governments… so we’ve had a record of it – there have been excellent nominated members who have participated and participating very actively even to this day. There are nominated members who participate on a daily basis and there are others who have not participated.
KT: So you’re saying a very important thing, Mr Vice President, you’re saying governments must think very carefully about the sort of people they nominate, so that they have a certain assurance that once nominated the person will participate.
HA: You have to think, what kind of input you require from an individual…
KT: And then choose the individual in accordance with that…
KT: Rather than simply choosing the person because they are celebrities or they are stars… (Ansari nods)
You’re saying yes…
An independent Rajya Sabha TV
KT: Let me come to Rajya Sabha TV. To everyone’s surprise and delight, it’s a channel that established itself with credibility, with independence, with a certain neutrality and that happened under your charge. Important colleagues of mine, who are senior journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan, M.K. Venu, Govind Ethiraj, Bharat Bhushan, have all been anchors. Now that you’re stepping aside, there is a concern in the media world, that perhaps the quality and character Rajya Sabha TV will change. Can you be confident that what you set up and established would continue as independent, credible and neutral, or does it depend critically on how your successor looks at the channel?
HA: Look, Rajya Sabha TV was set up by the decision of the Rajya Sabha and of course there is a longer story to it as to why a separate existence became necessary. So going back ten years, when I first stepped into Rajya Sabha, the then speaker Mr Somnath Chatterjee had a conversation with me in which he said, the original idea was to have one TV channel in which both would be participants, but at that point, the Rajya Sabha was not willing. So I said, alright, let me go back and see if I can change views. It so happened, that over a period of time I did persuade the dissenters to agree and the channel was established and the channel was given no command from the chair except that it should be a forum of discussion somewhat along the lines of the PBS.
KT: That’s because you were tolerant and that’s because you wanted the channel to operate objectively, independently, thoughtfully and analytically. What is the assurance that your successor will give no command and will operate the channel independently, objectively.
HA: I can’t comment on that, I’m not a jyotishi that I will tell what will happen tomorrow.
KT: So the fears that people have about the future of Rajya Sabha TV are not baseless? They could turn out to be very real?
HA: Why should anybody fear the future? You face the future that’s all. If a challenge emerges, face it.
Venkaiah Naidu as VP
KT: Let me ask you a question about your successor and I ask it only because many members of the Rajya Sabha, which is still your House, are voicing concerns. Unlike you, he’s been a politician all his life. He’s been not just a minister but a president of the BJP. At a time when the government is concerned and conscious about the way that the Rajya Sabha can check and delay its legislation, how confident are you that your successor will give the opposition in the Rajya Sabha a fair hand and a fair say?
HA: Look at the history of Indian vice presidents. They have been politicians, they have been philosophers, they have been educationists, they have been senior most members of the judiciary. They have all delivered. Nobody has said that they have not delivered.
KT: And you believe that will be true of your successor.
HA: Of course. The job dictates the response.
KT: I want to push you if I may with one thing. Very recently as a minister, your successor once described the prime minister as god’s gift to India. That comment lingers in the minds of many opposition MPs of the Rajya Sabha. That makes them wary. What will you tell those MPs, your MPs still, who are wary of your successor because he has called the prime minister ‘god’s gift to India’.
HA: Each individual thinks for himself. Each member of parliament, I have no reason to doubt the capacity to think on everybody’s part.
KT: But you are confident that the responsibility of the job when he sits in that chair will change him?
HA: Absolutely. Because that is the only way the job can be done.
KT: So the requirements of the job will change your successor’s thinking, attitude and behaviour, and that’s been true of all previous vice presidents as well?
HA: I go by their record. I am not an astrologer but I go by their record.
What Kashmir needs
KT: In the limited time left to me, I want to raise with you two problems. You have been a very successful diplomat. You’ve been, as I said in my introduction, an ambassador or high commissioner to six countries including the UN before you became vice president. And it’s in that light that I want to raise briefly, two issues of deep concern. The first is the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking in Bangalore on Sunday you said, and I am quoting, “The political immobility in relation to Jammu and Kashmir is disconcerting.” Are you suggesting that the governments both in Srinagar and Delhi ought to be taking more initiatives and are not? Is that the immobility that you are talking about?
HA: Yes. Yes. The problem is and has always been primarily a political problem. And it has to be addressed politically.
KT: And politicians today are ducking it?
HA: That’s my impression. And I’m not the only one in the country.
KT: So when you look at the trajectory of developments from say the killing of Burhan Wani in July last year and the way things have escalated, are you worried about what is happening in Kashmir? Are you apprehensive that the situation may be passing beyond a point of control?
HA: Well when young boys and girls come out on to the streets and throw stones day after day, week after week, month after month, it’s something to worry about because they are our children, they are our citizens. Something is obviously going wrong. What exactly, I am not the final word on it, but I think there are enough people in the country who are worried about it. Eminent people belonging to different political persuasions – and their worry must be taken on board.
KT: And in your speech when you said this immobility is disconcerting, you were actually saying to those in authority, be they in Delhi and Srinagar, you got to respond and act. You can’t not do so?
HA: Those are my words. I have expressed, expressed my worry in my own terms. Now whether someone reads it or not is not my business.
KT: The second issue that is problematic today is the India China standoff at Doklam. Just 48 hours ago or so, the Chinese newspaper the Global Times quoted a Chinese expert who said that a small-scale military operation is possible may be even likely in two weeks. Speaking of the apprehension in India are you apprehensive about this situation?
HA: Not really. I think we have had these periods of standoffs with China. And there is enough knowledge, enough experience, enough wisdom still available to be able to retrieve situations.
KT: This is a very interesting answer that you are giving, because the point made repeatedly by the government or the MEA spokesperson is that the present standoff is not substantively different to those we have seen in the past. The Chinese, as you know, have vigorously and strenuously denied that. You are relatively sanguine about the handling of the situation. You are not worried even though many in the newspapers and television are beginning to express anxiety and fear. You don’t fall into that category.
HA: The totality of Indian experience in dealing with China is very considerable makes me think that we will handle it.
KT: And you are confident, or not at least apprehensive at the moment, that we are handling it properly?
HA: No, I think that the government will manage it.
KT: My last question. Today is your last day as vice president. Tomorrow a new chapter opens. What next?
HA: That time will tell.
KT: But have you any plans in mind? Have you decided how you will spend your years of freedom? Because until now job restraints, responsibilities and protocol have weighed down upon you. You will still not be a free man. You will still be surrounded by security. But have you any idea what you want to do?
HA: Do all the things that I wanted to do and have not been able to do in sufficient measure.
KT: Does that include writing your memoirs?