Must legislatures expunge the comments that sully discourse?

  • Vinod Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 14, 2015 01:43 IST
For the dirt that sullies the shores after low tides in our debating chambers — Parliament and assemblies across states — is proof of what ails our legislative discourse (PTI Photo)

The idea might put one on the wrong side of parliamentarians, prone as they are to using their privileges to block free-thinking heretics, but law-makers owe to posterity an uncensored compendium of the highs and lows of House proceedings over the years.

For the dirt that sullies the shores after low tides in our debating chambers — Parliament and assemblies across states — is proof of what ails our legislative discourse. It isn’t merely a lack of etiquette, the absence of the right lexicon to articulate disagreement. The problem is of the poverty of ideas, the derangement striking at democracy’s core that mandates engagement, if not confluence, of differing perceptions.

The creeping canker of nasty discourse has gotten deep into a system that was once so ably nurtured by the makers of our constitution and their early successors. Yet the grave erosion of that rich legacy is kept out of the institutional memory of our legislatures.

That brings one to the practise of expunging comments deemed unbecoming of the dignity of the House and its members. The question, however, is: to know the downside, mustn’t we show the downside?

Will the real deterrence not be in naming and shaming before future generations all those who vandalise debate? When information is relayed real-time to our living rooms, isn’t the deferred knocking out of comments — heard loud and clear in live telecasts — hypocrisy at its worst?

If ever attempted, a chronological record of parliamentary lows could be voluminous. It might show some MPs, past and present, in unhelpful light. But if one is serious about correcting it, one must have a full measure of the problem at hand.

A glut of pious statements marked the start of the ongoing winter session that had Parliament discussing Bhimrao Ambedkar’s role in the making of the Constitution. There were notable speeches from either side of the legislative divide. Missing, however, was the matching resolve to stem the partisan slide that has tumbled to ugly depths.

The fact is that legislators mostly are unable to distinguish between public stage and the floor of the House. There are, of course, some honourable exceptions. But the majority of them mistake rhetoric for informed oratory. At times, it seems, there aren’t any successors left to the likes of Nehru, Nath Pai, Lohia, Hiren Mukherjee, Somnath Chatterjee, Indrajit Gupta, Madhu Limaye, Madhu Dandavate or Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

They were men of great merit, often doubling up as public intellectuals; rising above party politics on issues of national import. When they debated, they were heard. In awe. Of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s vacillations on Nehruvian inheritance, Hiren Mukherjee famously quoted Alexander Pope to assert the then PM was “willing to wound but afraid to strike...”

An episode involving Nehru and Acharya Kripalani is particularly illustrative of the respect parliamentarians at competing political ends gave each other. Nehru himself brought a privilege motion in the House in Kripalani’s defence when RK Karanjia’s Blitz lampooned him as “Kripaloony” for his trenchant attacks on the PM after the Chinese aggression.

Karanjia had taken on Kripalani out of admiration for Nehru. But the PM felt the feisty journalist insulted parliament by insulting an MP for his work in the House. It’s by such gestures that governments earn popular approval for themselves and the institution to which they’re accountable. Sweeping the muck raked in live telecasts under the carpet begets nothing but ridicule.

The records of our parliamentary democracy must be transparent also for they aren’t shorn of the high tides of oratory. In recent years, Pranab Mukherjee’s speech on illegal migration from Bangladesh, Arun Jaitley’s on office of profit and Sitaram Yechury’s on Ambedkar and the Constitution were in a class of their own. Vajpayee’s reply to the confidence vote he never took in 1996 was among his best.

Mani Aiyar can be erratic but is unassailable on his day. Shashi Tharoor is brilliant and so were Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Kapil Sibal. Sushma Swaraj had her glorious moments. So did LK Advani and the late Pramod Mahajan. PV Narasimha Rao was a formidable affirmative debater. Piloo Mody regaled with his ability to think humour on his feet.

If Arif Mohammad Khan held the House in thrall with his Shah Bano masterpiece in the Rajiv Gandhi days, Jaipal Reddy deployed his diction, his mighty vocabulary and mild demeanour to criticise and yet be lauded by fellow members charge sheeted for the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In the speech that was a delight to hear, Jaipal admired Advani’s “ability to articulate medieval ideology in modern idiom; present a mildewed world in mellowed way.” He called Murli Manohar Joshi a Sui generis scholar scientist with whom “my problem is that he confuses history with mythology, philosophy with theology and astronomy with astrology.”

Jaipal’s take on Uma Bharti was as intelligently worded as it was politically incisive: “She’s a restless soul who keeps transmigrating from Mandalism to Kamandalism.” The allusion was to her caste identity at variance the BJP’s Ram Mandir response to the affirmative action Mandal card.

Not a word was expunged from Jaipal’s speech that wasn’t any kid-glove critique of the saffron parivar. It’s such brilliance that gives hope amid depressing Billingsgate that meets the Chair’s eraser.

The contrast only makes stronger the case for an unedited anthology of our parliamentary discourse. There can be no vigilant stock talking without diligent record-keeping!


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