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Political debates touch new lows

chandigarh Updated: Dec 26, 2012 16:54 IST
Manpreet Singh Badal
Manpreet Singh Badal
Hindustan Times
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If Sir Sunder Singh Majithia were alive today, he would have regretted this day. For a man who was specially chosen to inaugurate the building of the Punjab Legislative Assembly in Lahore way back in 1936, Sir Majithia would have assumed that the portals of the legislature would be witness to enlightened wisdom, sincere debates and impeccable manners.


The Punjab Assembly at that time had a reputation of intellectual sophistication and linguistic flair. Debates and discussions of the legislature were considered the gold standard of behaviour and intellect. Though no language is greater or lesser than the other, the prevailing customs of the day meant that leaders would quote the finest Persian couplets, and even avoid Urdu "shayari". Today, the same Assembly has been home to hurling of abuses!

Tragically, those who have abused have not even apologised to the womenfolk of Punjab. Rather they are busy blaming the mikes.

Sir Majithia, while inaugurating the Punjab Assembly building, would have thought that in the twenty-first century, where frontiers of knowledge have expanded immensely, the level of debate and oratory would have touched greater heights.

Unfortunately, it has touched new lows. This low has been inversely proportional to the new heights of arrogance of the ruling classes. Unlike yesteryears, when power would lead to humility and better behaviour, we are witnessing the collapse of that culture. Instead, power has led to brazenness that the Punjab Assembly had never witnessed before.

This arrogance is one of the major reasons for the uncouth, uncivilised and deeply reprehensible behaviour, and that too coming from the key functionaries of the Punjab government. When the slightest remark is perceived by the rulers to be a challenge to their authority, one wonders whether it is fear, anger or rather anger stemming from fear.

The fact that someone has a majority does not impart that person with an "exalted" status. In Parliament, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once sought to shoot down a suggested amendment on the grounds - "The majority is with me." To this, the Opposition leader remarked, "But the logic is with me." The Prime Minister listened to the argument and let the amendment pass.

The rot in Punjab had begun setting in a long time ago. The first sign perhaps emerged in 1967 when Lachhman Singh Gill was presenting the budget. The occasion saw reports of scuffles within the Assembly. But it was not to be an isolated incident, but a sign of the things to come. Since then, successive years have seen repetition of unsavoury events and the repeated use of unparliamentary language. Today, scuffles and slogan shouting no longer make headlines.

A large portion of the blame has to be apportioned to the political leadership. If junior members of the government misbehave, it is expected of the senior leadership to caution them and set them on the right track. This would thwart the repeat of any such incident, and would serve as a lesson to all others that such behaviour is not acceptable.

Let me quote an example from the tenure of Sir Manohar Lal, who served as the finance minister of Punjab from 1937 to 1947. One of his most vocal opponents was a firebrand leader of the Muslim League by the name Khan Bahadur Shafiq Ahmed. The differences between the two were strong and ideological, but that did not mean taking recourse to impolite behaviour. On one occasion, Khan Bahadur Shafiq Ahmed's teenage son on seeing Sir Manohar Lal, politely "salaamed" (wished) him and stepped aside.

Khan Bahadur, on learning about the incident was taken aback. His son had merely wished Sir Manohar Lal and had not touched his feet! Immediately, he sent a handwritten apology regretting that his son had forgotten his cultural traditions and had avoided touching the venerable leader's feet.

In another case, once when the then Premier of Punjab, Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, walked into the Assembly, Chhanno Devi, a woman Congress MLA from Lahore (Urban), did not get up from her seat. On this occasion, Gopi Chand Bhargava, who was the Leader of the Opposition, expressed apologies explaining that his party's MLA did not get up from her seat due to ill health. Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan magnanimously accepted the apology.

These two instances cite the traditions of both our august House as well as our culture.

Compare that to our present leadership that has been rendered impotent by the wayward behaviour of their kith and kin. It is not just the opposition, but even their own leader, who is now left high and dry, and gagged from speaking.

The conduct of the Opposition, the treasury benches and the political leadership has left much to be desired. But a critical role is that of the Speaker of the House. The Speaker has claimed that he did not hear the abuses hurled by a minister in front of the mike.

Maybe, Sir Sunder Singh Majithia would have suggested gifting hearing aid to the Speaker, and speaking aids to his descendents.

(The writer, former Punjab finance minister and four-time MLA, is president of People's Party of Punjab. The views expressed are his personal).