You better not refer to a parliamentarian as a ‘giggling goose’ or a ‘Genghis Khan’. ‘Geriatric Bible basher’ and ‘gadarene swine’ are out too. And perish the thought of calling an MP ‘dirty little pig’ or ‘liar’. Lesser explained, but equally objectionable, is the use of the label ‘Harpics’, says Unparliamentary Expressions, a compendium published by the Parliament Secretariat in 1992.
As the volume is a collection of unmentionables gathered over a century from various legislatures around the world, the politics of different eras and different nations clash within the 230 pages of the compendium. Taking cue from the Zambian assembly, it advises against an MP calling a colleague ‘comrade’ on the floor (something that is, however, allowed in our Lok Sabha); but at the same time, someone cannot be referred to as ‘McCarthy’, the persecutor of Communists in the US half a century ago.
Subhash Chandra Malhotra, director of the ‘verbatim reporting’ unit of the Lok Sabha Secretariat, explains it’s all a matter of context. “An MP cannot allege that another MP is speaking ‘nonsense’. Terrorists, however, have been referred to as such. In Hindi, you cannot say someone is speaking jhooth, but asatya is allowed.” A reference by Nehru to a colleague’s speech as “fantastic nonsense”, however, remains on the records “because of the qualifier used”. And a few words have crept back into what’s parliamentary in recent times — for one, it’s alright nowadays to say that something is a “shame on the government”.
Highest office, toughest jobs
In the end, it’s the prerogative of the Speaker to keep any uttering in the official records or expunge it. He can pass the instruction immediately to the reporting team that sits in the Well of the House, or take a call at the end of the sitting. The reporters have to hang on to every word — and even the body language — of the Speaker. K. Srinivasan, joint director, recalls: “When Balram Jakhar was Speaker, he would often admonish an MP with a wag of his forefinger. Now, how do you know what to keep and what not to?”
By any account, it’s a demanding job. The reporters have to jot out the proceedings at the speed of at least 160 words of the shorthand script every minute, a skill no applicant has been able to match in the last three rounds of recruitment.Given the increasingly belligerence of our MPs, it’s a hazard too. The reporters who sit at the Opposition side of the horse-shoe table in front of the Speaker have the toughest time — something like the forward short-leg on the cricket field, a job often handed to the juniors in this team of 39. “MPs are often shouting standing right behind us. At times, we put the scissors and paperweights away, and put on the headphones to save our eardrums,” says a senior colleague of Malhotra who would rather not be named.
“The shorter the session, the tougher the job for us. Hundreds of pages have to be typed out in hours — and in this case, there can be no excuses and no errors. It has to be done, and it has to done right – after all we’re serving the highest office in the country,” says Vinod Kumar Sharma, additional secretary whose charges include the ‘Table Office’.
The toughest times are during the railway budgets because every MP has something to ask for his constituency. Indeed, the longest sitting of Lok Sabha in living memory was during the 1993 rail budget — it began at 11.01 one wintry morning, says the record, and stretched till 6.25 am the next day, without any breaks.
Serving with a straight face
Such tough demands are placed on the professionalism of all the 2,299 employees who man the Lok Sabha Secretariat, says Ramesh Chandra Ahuja, additional secretary, administration. Politicians may come and go, but it’s this cohort that looks after the formalities even when Parliament is in recess. There are 16 Lok Sabha standing committees that conduct meetings and field trips, and then there are publications, training and preparatory chores for the next session, points out P. Sreedharan, additional secretary in charge of questions who has to ensure that all promises made on the floor — even something as vague as “I’ll look into this” — are fulfilled within three months.
It’s for this reason that, after a recent revision, some junior employees are being paid higher than other Central government employees of comparable seniority. And after a review in 2005, the first of its kind, more than a third of the total cadre have been promoted, informs Srinivasan, who’s also president of the Lok Sabha Employees’ Association. Officer recruitment has also been brought in line with the three-stage process conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, though it’s handled by the Secretariat itself.
The leader of the team, secretary general PDT Achari, says the toughest job is that of the ‘simultaneous interpreter’, something he did for a few years when, as a postgraduate in English, he entered the service in 1970. “To go on speaking at the same time as that of an MP is a special skill,” he says. The interpreter has to read up on the proposed questions ahead of the sitting to ensure that specific terms and nuances aren’t garbled. Chandrasekhar Gadgil, director, interpretation, says the job is so tough that members are allowed only 20 minutes at a stretch behind the tinted glass overlooking the floor, and are advised at least an hour’s rest after that.
While the interpreter has to “maintain the spirit” of a funny speech, the reporters cannot even laugh in the name of ‘House decorum’. They take their revenge after the sitting. A team headed by Malhotra decides on the funniest quotes of the day and puts out a list. One of them recants: “An MP once complained that Piloo Mody, a man of considerable girth, was standing with his back to the Speaker, a posture that’s not allowed. At this, Mody turned to the Speaker and said, ‘Sir, how can I have a front and a back? I’m round!'” And all the reporters crack up in laughter.