Outside there was passion and intensity; inside reason and erudition. Outside, cries of Vande Mataram and invocations to Anna Hazare. Inside, references to history and invocations to the Constitution. Outside, angry people feeding soundbites to insatiable TV cameras. Inside, ideologically opposed men on Right and Left arguing calmly for the dignity of office.
The contrast couldn’t have been starker, or more ironical. On a day when public anger against corruption was spreading from town to town, a different sort of battle, but also one against corruption, went largely unnoticed and unsung.
As police officials and Team Anna negotiated the nuances of fasting, the Rajya Sabha debate on the impeachment of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court took place away from public glare. There was no heckling, no rushing to the well, no personal malice, no cheap political jibes that we see so often on our television screen. This was Parliament at its finest, Parliament as our founding fathers must have imagined it, resonant with rapt attention and masterful debate.
Passed in the Rajya Sabha, the impeachment motion is historic, and not just for the quality of its speakers including Sitaram Yechury and Arun Jaitley. It coincides with the anti-corruption movement, much of it directed against the political class. Aware that the motion was being introduced at a time when Parliament itself was under attack, Yechury said he was introducing the motion as a “call of duty to my conscience and Constitution”.
The impeachment motion is the first in the Upper House and the second in our Parliament’s history (the first motion in 1993 against Justice V Ramaswami failed when the Congress abstained from voting). If it is passed in the Lok Sabha next week, Justice Sen will become the first sitting judge to be impeached. In his two-hour self-defence, Justice Sen dropped not-so-broad hints about corruption elsewhere in the judiciary, including a jab at former Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan. The subtext is bogus (when others are crooks why am I being singled out?) and serves as a cautionary tale. Our Constitution provides for action against corrupt judges, even though it is used only in the rarest cases; Justice Dinakaran, transferred from Karnataka to Sikkim, for instance, resigned before impeachment proceedings could be brought against him.
There is a second message — to those who have lost faith in the system. Our institutions might not be perfect but they do work. In Azad Maidan and India Gate and Freedom Park there is derision for both government and Parliament. “If the Constit-ution says Parliament is supreme, then change the Constitution,” reads one placard. Perhaps mindful of the ratings game, the TV cameras remained trained on the crowds. What a pity because what unfolded over two days was in fact exemplary Parliament, with the knockout punch being delivered by Arun Jaitley who not only rebutted Justice Sen’s defence but raised larger questions about the need for a National Judicial Commission; about who judges should be accountable to and about preserving judicial independence.
But there is a third message and it goes to our politicians. Each time you rip a microphone or tear up papers or march out of the House (last year an entire five-week session was lost as Opposition MPs pressed for a JPC on the telecom scam) you harm the larger institution of Parliament. Excellence in debate, thoroughness of research, temperance of language and a united pursuit of national interest can’t be aberrations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the powers and sanctity of Parliament cannot be outsourced to the rabble on the street. In that case, Parliament must rise more often — every day in fact — to preserve its own sanctity.
Ten, 20 years from now, how will we view the events of this past week — the one on the streets and the one in Parliament? Chances are that what we will remember is the rage of people frustrated by corruption and an unresponsive government. But spare a thought too for the day when the target of their anger, politicians themselves, rose to redeem parliamentary dignity on the day it was under attack.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal