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House of spirits

Monsoon sessions are generally turbulent. Under hovering rainclouds, the gathering generally sees rage of long summer reach boiling point, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2006 01:03 IST

Monsoon sessions of Parliament are generally turbulent. Under hovering rainclouds, the mid-year gathering of people’s representatives generally sees the rage of the long summer reach boiling point. But if you look at this monsoon session of the 14th Lok Sabha, the only sentiment you might experience is bathos and anticlimax. The delirium of our politicians was never more in evidence than in this session. The sheer disconnect between a growing conscientious civil society and a cynical, lethargic Parliament was never more sharply in focus.

Two issues dominated the monsoon session of this Parliament. One is the Office of Profit Bill and the other is the ‘mole’ controversy created by former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh’s imaginings about a spy in Narasimha Rao’s PMO. The context of India at a time when these issues are obsessing Parliament is curious. Mumbai has just been hit by what has been described as an international standard terrorist assault. Seven precision bombs have taken the lives of over 200 train commuters, in a military-style operation targeting the breadwinners of urban families. Brokers, insurance agents, businessmen, ad executives and scores of white-collar professionals lie dead in an attack aimed at striking terror in the heart of precisely the class that is powering the new Indian economy.

Has the monsoon session of the 14th Lok Sabha revealed, even by a single speech or by a resolution, or by a few moments of silence, or by a debate, that it remotely cares about the 200 dead in Mumbai? All we saw was a disappointing exchange started by Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, who raised the communal pitch, to be met by the Home Minister providing a dull, bureaucratic answer on the dangers of communalism.

Has a parliamentarians’ group  been formed to provide assistance to families? Has any speaker in the House risen to his feet to try and provide voice to the grief-stricken parents and lonely orphaned children? Has there been any statement by any MP that reveals that the honourable members even know of the nature of the threat confronting ordinary Indians as they go to work every morning? Certainly not. But why should the parliamentarians care anyway. They, after all, live in fortified castles with taxpayers financing gunmen to protect their ageing limbs, so why should they bother if those very taxpayers who pay for MPs privileges should themselves be struck down by terrorism?

What is the other social context at the moment? What is the surrounding reality of the furious discussions on who was the spy in the PMO a decade ago? Farmers are committing suicide in Vidarbha and other parts of the country. The PM has visited and announced a Rs 3,750 crore relief package. Ten days after his visit, 34 farmers took their lives, their dead bodies providing the uncomfortable backdrop to discussions about the ‘mole’ in Narasimha Rao’s government.

On farmer suicides, all we saw were walk-outs, noisy protests and adjournment of the House. Is there any serious debate, any concern, any glimpse of the fact that someone amid all those dressed-up people going to and fro in their armed cars cares about the desperate agriculturalists of Vidarbha? No. In Chhattisgarh, hundreds are trapped in a vicious battle between Maoists and the Salva Judum movement of tribal youth. No policeman wants to serve in the Naxal districts. Families are sending their eldest sons to join the Maoists because of lack of jobs. Trains are blown up, villagers are massacred. Yet what is the government concerned about? Why, the ‘mole’ in a former PMO, of course.

So forget the 11/7 Mumbai blasts, the agrarian crisis, the rise in prices and the fact that hundreds of Indians across the land are losing their children and parents to violence. Let us concentrate on the mole in the PMO from a decade ago. Yet, even a debate on the mole would be interesting if it actually revolved around demystifying the entire foreign policy establishment and if there was a hard questioning of national security babus who are perhaps far too lofty and remote from the public. Yet, the parliamentary wranglings on the ‘mole’ are so pathetic and illiterate that they are impossible to justify.

Jaswant Singh is a feudal raja at heart. He has failed to understand how lawless his actions are, that to accuse the very fountainhead of government of spying on the eve of the publication of his book is a very serious violation of public order. As senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani has pointed out, if the mole theory is true, then Jaswant Singh is guilty of harbouring information and committing a criminal act under the Indian Penal Code. Of course, now Jaswant Singh seems to have muddle-headedly withdrawn all knowledge of a mole.

But the parliamentarians don’t give a damn anyway. Why should they care that one of their senior members has committed a potentially criminal act of withholding information? Why should they care when Parliament is, in fact, a refuge, a great escape, from the price rise, the terrorism, the massacres of daily life in India?

A semblance of parliamentary debate has so far taken place on the Office of Profit Bill. But, once again, the combined legal talent of Arun Jaitley and Abhishek Singhvi failed to shake members out of their torpor. And in any case, there was hardly a meaningful debate on Office of Profit. Failing to heed the President’s appeal to actually enact a law based on principles, the government remained myopically focused on individual MPs. So parliamentarians have failed to lay down criteria to actually define what is an office of profit, failed to ask why an office of profit should be an illegality. Instead, they have just rushed through a Bill seeking to protect individuals, so that the seats of Sonia Gandhi, Jaya Bachchan and of certain Left leaders are saved.

Perhaps, it is the television media that is responsible for the ruination of Parliament. Perhaps because TV only covers the noisy adjournments and the walkouts, MPs are simply not motivated to carry out serious debates and quiet deliberations. Perhaps the great orators have ceased to enter Parliament. Only fixers and lobbyists and heads of caste armies, or feudal sons sit in the benches and they may or may not be known for their oratorial skills or even their grasp of any reality beyond that of keeping their votes intact. There is also the reality perhaps that MPs have now become municipal corporators busy creating roads and drains in their constituencies and thus their skills at public speaking are not necessary or valued. How comical, indeed how tragic, that it was the cartoon capers of Navjot Singh Sidhu that dominated the Lok Sabha’s voice on farmer suicides.

One word comes to mind in viewing Parliament in the context of Indian reality, and that word is disconnect. Disconnect and delirium. Ask any citizen what ‘mole’ and what ‘Office of Profit’ means outside Raisina Hill and they may not be able to tell you or may not even care. As civil society empowers itself to fight corruption, as groups like Citizens for Justice and Peace organise themselves in Mumbai, as citizens use RTI to question local governments, the seat of the people’s will in India is becoming a backward sector. There is no brain, no passion, no new ideas, no oratory, no 21st century voice in the parliamentary proceedings of this monsoon session. All there is, is frenzied gossip about a mole, which is a symbol of how Parliament is becoming catastrophically distant from the energies of new India.

The writer is Features Editor, CNN-IBN