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Picking on nothing

On India's 59th b'day, there are things we can't be proud of. We have enough things to be ashamed of, writes Abhishek Singhvi.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2006 06:08 IST

On our nation’s 59th birthday, there are many things we cannot be proud of. Indeed, we have enough things to be ashamed of. This is not a report card of the nation but looking at one facet alone — parliamentary democracy. A first-time visitor to Parliament may well be forgiven for being bewildered and disgusted with the chaos and cacophony witnessed in the two Houses. India’s temple of democracy is often the hub of pettifogging, shouting and wrangling matches. Automatic opposition to anything and everything is common. Boycotts and interruptions reduce parliamentary time and efficiency by over 50 per cent at great cost to the nation. This excludes the more extreme examples of some state assemblies where hurling of chairs and chappals and the occasional fisticuffs is known to occur.

This is a larger issue of a fractured consensus. The lack of grace and magnanimity is an inevitable consequence of societal and political divisiveness. The binding agents at each level of society have vanished; the divisive factors of caste, creed, community, politics and personal ambition alone are visible. The products of this ambience must necessarily be small minds with inflated egos.

Amid this depressing scenario, I witnessed a touching scene in Parliament the other day which reaffirmed my faith in parliamentary democracy and made me think that, perhaps, all is not lost.

Early Sunday evening, I was besieged by calls from a TV channel asking me to be ready to react to a major, sensational story which it proposed to break that night. Since they would not disclose the contents in advance, I refused. Just before the start, I was told the story — that of a sitting Union Home Minister allegedly having been recorded having conversations with a gang leader incarcerated in a UP jail, seeking favours for the minister’s son-in-law.

I refused to comment till Monday, despite the tenacity and persistence of the channel. I then saw what the whole nation saw — a recorded conversation being played ad nauseam, politician bashing ad infinitum, didactic sermonising by all and sundry. In the midst of all this, I saw a diminutive, dark minister, unable to speak English, desperately trying, in accented Hindi, to defend his honour and going black and blue with denials while journalists thrust intrusive and provocative questions at him. Lack of an instant answer was construed as established guilt.

I had never seen, met or heard Manikrao Gavit. The next day, I saw him for the first time in the Upper House. He rose and read from a handwritten piece of paper in somewhat incoherent Hindi, protesting his complete innocence but insisting on stopping discharge of governmental business as a minister till completion of the inquiry.

And then unfolded something which almost brought tears to my eyes. Sharad Yadav, a senior  Opposition leader, rose and made a robust defence of the minister. His words were evocative and powerful — he said he had known this man for years and Gavit could not have made five paise in his life nor hurt a fly. Sushma Swaraj — contrary to her party’s strong attacks on Gavit for hours on Sunday night —  rose to say that she had spent 10  days with Gavit as part of a parliamentary delegation and had no hesitation in saying that even to the naked ear, the voice on tape was not his. She said that she did not even want an inquiry against the minister — she was convinced and would certify then and there that the man was innocent.

There are many lessons here. One, the need for responsible journalism. The visual media lives for the moment. The need for sensationalism and for instant answers is, in turn, driven by the mad demands of competitive journalism, which, in turn, is dependent on the completely vague and subjective methodology of TRP ratings. Gavit necessarily had to be exposed in order to have a Sunday ‘scoop’. The channel didn’t think it appropriate to investigate further and verify the tapes.

Second, politician-bashing is easy and makes instant heroes out of those who do it. NGOs, commentators and analysts not only make a living out of it, not only do they get publicity, not only do they build substantial and lucrative careers but they can exhibit a higher morality which rarely attempts to differentiate the bad from the good apples. It is deemed irrelevant that they have very little experience of governance themselves and very little knowledge about the simple lives of several legislators.

Third, the disastrous effects on the life and reputation of individual politicians. How many of us know that Gavit is an eighth-time elected legislator? That the man is simplicity personified? He cannot speak English and is not a sophisticated urban icon. He does not come across as a suave or  savvy politician. Is that the reason that he confirms our worst notions of criminality? Would the media have been equally self-righteous, intrusive and aggressive with media savvy politicians?

Fourth, it is imperative for civil and political society to rise above pettiness — as it did for Gavit — and speak up for decency, honesty and simplicity, irrespective of political divides. This realisation must dawn that all persons in public life are not corrupt or venal. That hundreds of legislators come from simple backgrounds and continue to live simple uncomplicated lives but connect hugely with the masses in their constituencies. The fact is that all generalisations — including this one — are wrong and may even be dangerous.

And finally, the media, commentators, political parties and civil society must cease to mistake a moment to be eternal reality. Everyone has to start thinking in short and medium-term paradigms in terms of impact of actions and reject the instant-coffee nature of contemporary society.

The writer is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and a Congress spokesperson.
drams59@amsinghvi.com