Over the years, political discourse in the world’s largest democracy, has reached a new low.
In 1911, the British decided to shift their capital from Kolkata to a new city, New Delhi. The entire project, including the imposing Viceroy’s palace (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), and the North and South Blocks, leading through a wide boulevard, King’s Way, to India Gate, took twenty years to finish. In 1931, the new capital was inaugurated, intended to be a monumental assertion of British rule, a way to awe the ‘natives’ into accepting continued colonial hegemony. But it was too late. By then the freedom movement had gathered renewed momentum. The British had to leave their grand creation, New Delhi, in 1947.
I recall this to illustrate that often in the construction of new edifices, there is a fatal gap between the probable ideological intentions of the architects, and the reality that follows. On September 19, 2023, Prime Minister (PM) Modi formally jettisoned the old Parliament, and moved to the grandiose new one adjacent to it. In his statesman-like speech to bid farewell to the old, he hoped that the new Parliament would also lead to better, less disruptive, more cooperative and dignified parliamentary proceedings, where debates would be carried out with civility and decorum. He further assured the Speaker that, on his part, he would ensure that all members of his party would conform to this new resolve.
However, just as the intentions of the British with regard to their grand new capital were belied, the PM’s hopes — and promises — about the new Parliament were also shattered, that too in its very first session. Ramesh Bidhuri, a BJP MP in the Lok Sabha (LS), used language against Kunwar Danish Ali, a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP, that left the nation shocked. Full of invectives, and unmentionable abuse about him and Muslims in general, it was a disgraceful reminder that however beautiful the new Parliament may be physically, its spirit is even uglier than that of the old. Nothing has changed, but things could only perhaps worsen.
Over the years, political discourse in the world’s largest democracy, has reached a new low. Abuses, slurs, racist comments, and undesirable personal attacks, have become the new normal. The worst exceptions of the past, when Parliament was indeed a forum for civilised discourse, have become the best examples of parliamentary proceedings today. But rarely, have we ever witnessed, in the very temple of our democracy, the kind of abusive and racist language used by Bidhuri against Danish Ali. What is worse is that two respected BJP MPs, Harsh Vardhan and Ravi Shankar Prasad, who have been senior ministers, could be seen laughing at the disgusting language used by their party colleague.
To be fair, Rajnath Singh, Raksha Mantri, stood up to express “regret” at what Mr Bidhuri had said. But there was no outright condemnation either by the PM, who is also the Leader of the Lok Sabha, nor by any other senior leader of the BJP. On the contrary, there was a concerted attempt the very next day by some BJP leaders to condone Mr Bidhuri’s unpardonable language by saying that he was “provoked” by Danish Ali’s alleged derogatory remarks about the PM. Mr Ali has denied these allegations, but if true he, too, needs to be chastised by his party leader, Mayawati, and to render an apology.
However, there is little doubt that Mr Bidhuri’s language has shamed his party. In the past, too, Prime Minister Modi has expressed sorrow for the comments made by senior members of his party, including MPs and ministers. In 2019, ‘Sadhvi’ Pragya Thakur Singh, a member of the LS, said inside Parliament and outside, that Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, was a “deshbhakt” (patriot). Although she attempted a half-hearted apology for her outrageous comment, the PM said that he will never be able to forgive her. But she has remained a BJP MP. Will she be given a ticket again by the party in 2024? Sakshi Maharaj, another BJP LS member, had said the same thing in 2014. There were reports that Mr Modi was “annoyed” by his comment, but no punitive action was taken, except for Sakshi Maharaj apologising for his comment. In the same year, ‘Sadhvi’ Niranjan Jyoti, a minister in the Central government, said in a public speech before the Delhi Assembly polls, that voters had to choose between “ramzadon” and “haramzadon” — an obvious and condemnable slur on a particular minority. In spite of this, she was let off with a perfunctory rap on her knuckles and continues to be a minister. BJP MP Parvesh Varma, called for the total boycott of Muslims at a public speech in Delhi in 2022. No action was taken against him either.
Opposition parties are not entirely blameless. I have no sympathy for the Opposition’s unruly behaviour, its repeated use of coarse language and routine breach of parliamentary decorum. But the perception must exist that punishment for unacceptable conduct will be impartial. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Opposition in the LS, of whose leadership and language I am not an admirer, was immediately suspended from the House for a much lesser offence, and his case referred to the privileges committee. Similar punishment has been meted out tomany other Opposition MPs in both Houses. Yet so far, the Speaker has only expunged Mr Bidhuri’s vile expletives and issued him a warning, but nothing more. This certainly reflects on his impartiality. What is worse is that Mr Bidhuri has now apparently got a pat on his back by his party, by being given charge of Tonk constituency — from where Sachin Pilot is the Congress candidate — in the forthcoming Rajasthan Assembly elections.
What precedent does this set? Mr Modi’s noble hope, that the new Parliament will also see qualitatively new parliamentary proceedings, was laudable, but previous precedents do not augur well. There is too much hate, bigotry and mistrust for this to happen. The truth, alas, is that just as new clothes don’t change the character of a person, the new building is unlikely to change the character of our Parliament.