It was 25 years ago that I first entered the press gallery of the Lok Sabha, a bit intimidated and overwhelmed. I remembered the tall circular building, the high-roofed chamber of the lower house, and the feeling that this is where India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered that ‘Tryst with Destiny’ address at the moment of Independence 76 years ago. The spartan grandeur, the portraits hanging from the walls of the circular corridor, and the tall statues all silent sentinels of a day long gone, watched me silently.
Twenty five years later, I entered the hallowed hall one last time, but this time as a visitor. The space reserved for the fourth pillar of democracy across the hall in the press gallery wore a deserted look with just a handful of colleagues present. But is it just journalism that’s been reduced to the fringes and journalists to spectators, I wondered.
The special session began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi waxing eloquent about India’s journey of the past 75 years. Modi invoked his bête noire Nehru in statesmanlike fulsome praise, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and even Manmohan Singh who has been dissed by the present dispensation through the 10 years that his government was in power. The five-day special session will witness the shift to the newly constructed parliament building on Ganesh Chaturthi, a day reserved for auspicious beginnings.
“We might be shifting to the new building but this building will keep on inspiring the coming generation,” Modi said. Quoting a sentence from the Upanishads that is inscribed on the gate of the new parliament, the PM said, “The sages said to open the doors for the people and see how they attain their rights.”
The old parliament building built in the pre air-conditioning age with its iconic circular facade and cylindrical pillars was open and full of natural light. A cool breeze blew through the corridors even in the blazing summer. By contrast, the new building is a closed space with flat, straight and high insurmountable walls. The symbolism is hard to miss.
“The building is designed to ward off an enemy attack, closed from all sides like a fort. But who is the enemy here?” asked a scribe. “Our homes in the village are built in a somewhat similar fashion. High walls ensconce the house but then the difference is the house has a courtyard at the centre of it which is a hub where family members meet and it promotes a community feeling. This building here is stifling.” he added.
The designs of the two buildings reflect the mindset of the dispensation, “open versus closed,” said another.
The new parliament has huge air-conditioned halls and no courtyard to mingle in or for general bonhomie. It has the look of a corporate office, a scribe said. “The media gallery is designed in a way that you can only see the backs of most MPs unlike the old House where all MPs were clearly visible,” said another.
Congress leader and three time MP Shashi Tharoor says, “More then a beautiful building what is needed is what goes on inside it. What you need is a thriving democracy. I have seen two prime ministers. And Mr Modi, while quite striking when he’s present, has been absent quite a bit. In fact, I had calculated that in the first three years of his regime, he spent more time addressing foreign parliaments then in his own country.”
Security officers say the prime minister’s office will be clearly off bounds and even the offices of MPs will be cordoned off. If true, this will be a far cry from the time when one could walk right into the office of the PM even as the Special Protection Group scowled, or accost a Vajpayee as he stepped out of the building and thrust a mic at him. You could also go room to room, be it of a minister or political party, sniffing for news. The durbar of the late BJP leader Arun Jaitely whether he was in the opposition or the Treasury Benches was an adda for journalists trying to make headway in an increasingly opaque dispensation.
There was a time when the parliament played host to the camaraderie between journalists and MPs. You cheekily breezed in late to parliament and parked your car in the common parking space. My favourite spot was the same as the Late Amar Singh’s and I often beat him to it.
You could also watch history in the making from the front row seats in the Rajya Sabha media gallery, as many did when the Women’s Reservation Bill or the nuclear deal passed in the Lok Sabha. Some of the fiercest orators in the house were Vajpayee and the late Sushma Swaraj. You dropped everything when they stood up to speak. Challenges were many, too. You often covered House proceedings till 2 am on a foggy December night and were back to the temple of democracy by 10 am the next morning.
Six time MP and part time airline pilot Rajiv Pratap Rudy says he first became an MP in 1996 and one of the chores he was tasked with by the Speaker was to take care of the parliament’s gardens. “I have been closely associated with designing the gardens or reconstruction of public utilities in the building. My memories are reminiscent of a lot of good things, of excitement and loss, of creativity and hope. I am privileged to be a part of the change and Prime Minister while speaking like a statesman reminisced about parliament’s history,” he says.
The bullet marks on the solid stone exteriors are somber reminders of the attack on the parliament on December 13, 2001. I for one was in my office, at a stone’s throw from the parliament. I got to know of the attack not from television but because a bullet hit the metal frame of my window, one foot away. Many colleagues have similar stories.
Opposition MPs fear the tradition of throttling the opposition and say that voices of dissent will continue to be heard in the new building as well. As TMC leader Derek O’Brien tweeted, “Give me back an India where the head is held high and the mind is without fear.”