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Despite the toxic atmosphere in Delhi and the gloomy darkness all around, Parliament is back to ‘business as usual’. Where its upper house is concerned, this means – rather sadly so – that everything shall be kept in a state of constant disarray.
This suits the man who openly supports a presidential form of governance and has repeatedly displayed contempt for India’s parliamentary democracy and cabinet system, among many other pet negative obsessions. In his scheme of things, the Rajya Sabha is just an avoidable nuisance where he has made it a point to spend the lowest number of minutes per year of all prime ministers.
One should have guessed the prime minister’s latest game-plan when he decided to skip the all-party meeting just before the Winter Session commenced. His absence was not only unusual but deliberately insulting and surely reiterated his calculated contempt for parliamentary democracy.
Let us clearly understand that turmoil in the Rajya Sabha suits Modi since the BJP does not enjoy a sweeping majority in this house. However. he cobbles together the required numbers through his ever-obliging allies. But we know everything comes at a price, more so in politics. And as someone from a state reputed for its business acumen, Narendra Modi would like to keep his costs as low as possible.
Modi tackles his targets one at a time and since he enjoys more than a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, he can steamroll anything and still claim legitimately that he has executed the voice of the people. But the Rajya Sabha is not in his pocket and thus has to be tied in knots like the eight long limbs of an octopus. In the process, the opposition has to necessarily be villainised and Modi’s narrative constructed accordingly.
All MPs who protest are immediately branded “disruptors” who create a sorry spectacle and waste public money. No self-respecting Parliamentarian believes in disrupting proceedings; they want their individual speeches and interjections to be seen and heard, not lost in the din of protest when the cameras cut them out and switched-off mics silence their voices. But protests and disruptions are legitimate weapons that are invoked only as a last resort. It took Modi’s special, vindictive style to compel the opposition to resort to these weapons almost daily – or else they would have had to just sit down quietly and digest the humiliation of being slighted.
Therefore, MPs take to shouting slogans and loudly protesting or even going up to the Well when they are denied all other options; as the last resort.
Yet the extremely successful official campaign says that opposition MPs are irresponsible and are constantly disrupting the proceedings of the house, thereby wasting precious time and public money. A crude analogy that we are reminded of is blaming the bruised wife for shouting when she’s being battered left, right and centre. As someone who constantly witnesses this commotion, I observed how two contesting ‘realities’ operate simultaneously during any turmoil in Parliament.
The ‘official version’ is tightly controlled by the regime through its own television cameras and microphone network that simply cut out any evidence of protest, offering the outside world only the sarkari narrative. Critical issues raised by opposition MPs – which would surely interest the citizens of the country – are deemed never to have happened. The microphone system records only what the treasury bench is saying and the din of the opposition protesting in the background is skilfully purged out. Since no cameras other than official ones are permitted within the house, what the media and the people get to see is only this official version of reality; the doctored footage.
The ‘objective reality’ hardly ever surfaces, unless MPs defy the prohibitions and take photos of their protests or of the pandemonium (if and when that occurs) and release them – which, unfortunately, can still only reach a limited audience.
The people of India, who are told that their MPs are wasting national resources, will hardly ever come to know that their public representatives were silenced every time they spoke of the astronomical prices of cooking gas or petrol/diesel and their cascading effects on every household commodity. They would never know that the MPs who demanded only a clear statement from the government as to whether or not it spent crores of rupees to tap the phones of people they considered “troublesome” were dealt with quite roughly for their sheer temerity. Or that those who spoke on behalf of the protesting farmers within the house were shouted down and, if they went to the Well or got up on the furniture to demand the chair’s attention, they were physically roughed up by the marshals and shrilly condemned in the media and the world outside.
For the first time in remembered history, 12 MPs have been suspended en masse for an entire session – which is designed to ensure that this troublesome Sabha is on the boil. All 12 MPs were known to be vocal and the regime ensured that six were from the Congress and two each from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Shiv Sena. The remaining two were from the CPI and CPI (M), but what made it interesting was that a few very ‘loud protestors’ appear to have been left out. What makes this look like a deliberate move is that most of them are from states where elections are to be held soon; the ruling dispensation did not want to create any ‘martyrs’ in these states.
Questions were raised by MPs on whether every requirement had truly been fulfilled before this extreme step was taken but, then again, it may not be proper to discuss these issues outside the House. The craftiness of the ruling party is quite clear and these ruthless suspensions ensured that any self-respecting opposition would continue to protest and, hopefully, walk out. To further guarantee an opposition-mukt house, ministers refused to discuss a single grievance put forth by the opposition so that it walked out in disgust.
A government that is hell-bent on stifling democracy obviously says ‘good riddance’ to these MPs and can hustle through whatever it wants – which it actually did. So, this becomes ‘business as usual’ in a house that has no one to question the most draconian regime since Independence.
One must realise that the marginalisation of parliamentary democracy is not a by-product of arrogance but is integral to Modi’s thinking and those he rewarded in Parliament have perforce to play along or be packed out. Slowly but surely, he has ensured the drying up of every source of information within and about Parliament.
For its first seventy years, Parliament offices made sure that every MP received copies of all replies given by the treasury bench, the data/responses released by government as well as reports of the committees and other critical information. These came in bulk and on paper, but in the name of modernisation and digitisation, the establishment has now cut off these sources. If one wants important information, she/he would either have to go to the library and check the single authenticated hard copy kept there or navigate a rather complicated website that tires the patience of most Parliamentarians.
This is quite an achievement, true to Modi’s style since most MPs would hardly have the time to keep trying and trying to ferret information all by themselves. Much of the information available on the internet is locked and can be prised open only by the member themselves, not their ‘office staff’ who thus cannot assist the MP.
COVID-19 proved to be a blessing for intrusive autocracies all over the world and, as we know, surveillance was increased to unprecedented degrees. Taking full advantage of the pandemic, Parliament is now a no-go zone for almost the entire Indian media. This throttles a valuable source of information so essential to a healthy democracy, but does anyone care? After all, this regime is hell-bent on extracting even the smallest sliver of power out of every issue, incident or happening. For this, COVID restrictions were a godsend.
When shopping malls and public transport are largely open to millions, why are a handful of media persons are still prohibited from reporting on proceedings of the houses of Parliament? It is obviously meant to stymie the functioning of what we once prided as a vibrant, pulsating, plural democracy.
But both Hegel and Marx had forecast that every ‘thesis’ generates its own anti-thesis that paves the way for its downfall. Modi’s strategy to generate maximum mischief by suspending 12 Rajya Sabha MPs has actually helped bring all true opposition Parliamentarians – except those from “his majesty’s loyal opposition” – closer to each other.
They realise, finally, that they have to coalesce into one united working front if they are to withstand Modi’s depredations. He has, therefore, achieved the goal of uniting the opposition – something a dozen of meetings among disparate opposition parties could accomplish for months and years. Thank you, Prime Minister.
Jawhar Sircar is a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP.