As I watched the histrionics in the Lok Sabha last week, I pinched myself to make sure this was real life and not some second-rate reality show. Easy to be fooled since the leading lady of the parliamentary drama rose to celebrity and fame in a TV soap opera. She is now a Cabinet minister, but Smriti Irani seemed for a moment to have confused her careers as she shrieked, “Apologise, apologise, Sonia Gandhi, apologise to the nation for sanctioning the disrespect of a woman in the highest constitutional post.”
You would have seen for yourself what transpired so I shall not bore you with the details, because the point I wish to make is that Parliament is not the right forum for this kind of performance. The Congress MP who made the supposedly offensive comment about India’s newly elected President apologised instantly and confessed that he had said ‘rashtrapatni’ instead of ‘rashtrapati’ because he was Bengali, and his Hindi was not very good. The matter should have ended there, but ‘new India’ is a country where small things seem to matter more than big ones.
In this short session of Parliament, the list of big things that need to be discussed and debated upon is long. The item I would put at the very top is the recent discovery of around Rs 50 crore in cash in the home of a ‘friend’ of a minister in the West Bengal government. The minister has now been sacked but the images of those piles of cash will be hard to erase because they were proof that in the 75th year of our life as a modern nation, we are unable to curb the greed of high officials. This particular case sickened me more because just days before the loot was discovered I lent Rs 50,000 to a man in Bihar who said his village home had been blown away in a storm. “It had mud walls,” he said, lowering his eyes, “but my parents have nowhere to live now.” I was ashamed he asked for so little in a country in which those who we elect to high office can stash vast, looted fortunes away. Should the Lok Sabha not be discussing why black money remains such a blight?
The next item on my list of ‘big’ things to discuss would be unemployment, higher today than it has been in 40 years. It reflects poorly on an economy that our leaders regularly boast is the world’s ‘fastest growing’. What also reflects poorly is the number of Indians who have become economic refugees in the past three years. The Lok Sabha was told on July 19 by the junior Home Minister that in 2019, 1,44,017 Indians gave up their citizenship, in the following year the figure dropped to 85,256, but in 2021 it went up to 1,63,370. Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, 9,33,345 Indians have fled our shores. Should this not be a subject for discussion in the Lok Sabha?
Insisting upon an immediate debate on rising prices was the reason why Opposition MPs have been suspended. Fuel and food prices have risen alarmingly, but why is it not possible for Opposition parties to demand a debate without waving placards and leaping around in the well of the house? Strict punishment for bad behaviour is good, but if the Speaker was acting justly, then some of the leading ladies on the government side should also have been punished.
It was ludicrous to treat the ‘rashtrapatni’ comment as an insult to womankind. Especially since the ladies making this charge were totally silent when that Dalit teenager was gangraped, murdered and cremated by the police in the dead of night in Hathras. Was it because this happened in a state ruled by the BJP? And, what about the endless, brutal rapes of little girls that are reported every day? Why have these ladies never demanded a debate on them?
Could it be because Parliament has become a forum in which headlines are only made when there is hysteria and histrionics about something so trivial that it should not merit any discussion? And here it would be wrong not to admit that a taste for small things is what the public seems to have acquired. If primetime TV debates are a measure, then it can be said without the smallest doubt that the Indian people like to hear discussions about simple, silly things and not serious issues.
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What worries me is that in the long years that I have covered politics and government, I cannot remember a time when trivia has been so important. It is as if the proud ‘new India’ that has been created in the name of Hindutva and aggressive nationalism is a country that is defined by small things, and big grievances about small things. Every week there are reports of some new group that has become aggrieved over some new, small thing. It is hard to say whether the men and women we elect to Parliament have created this ugly trend or if they are simply reflecting the popular mood.
Personally, I cannot think of another democratic country in which Parliament has become a forum for issues that should not need discussion even in a village council. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that Parliament functions properly. It is time that it fulfilled this responsibility.