Dark clouds hover as Indian parliament turns 60
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)
Despite the mounting criticism and steady loss of faith in democratic institutions and the many questions being raised by Indians about the personal integrity of those in public life, it was a proud moment for India when its parliament convened a special session on Sunday to mark the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of the Indian parliament on May 13, 1952. The luminaries at the time included Rajendra Prasad, S. Radhakrishnan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and B.R. Ambedkar amongst others.
The celebratory speeches by MPs on Sunday cut across party lines and reflected the enormity of what had been achieved — the nurturing of the democratic ethos through the ballot box for six decades — despite the certitude, at the time when the colonial yoke was lifted, that democracy in India was doomed to fail.
Leading the charge was the redoubtable but congenitally imperialistic Winston Churchill who predicted that the natives were not fit to govern themselves and would soon “fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages”.
The billion-plus Indian glass is perhaps more empty than full and the spectrum of socio-economic and political challenges that need to be addressed, and the accumulated inequities that need to be redressed through the normative democratic principle is indeed daunting.
Sunday’s rich rhetoric captured this flavour with some stellar oratorical performances that were not oblivious to the compulsions of live TV coverage.
While corruption scandals have become par for the course in the current Indian experience — and senior cabinet ministers have been sent to prison — the more recent finger-pointing at the office of the President and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha for being seen to be less virtuous than Calpurnia of old is very disturbing.
Personal conduct in public life going back to the 1950s and 1960s in India recognised certain unwritten boundaries and the accepted norm was that some practices and responses while holding high office were just not ‘right’.
Personal rectitude and probity were expected and respected — in the main — for good reason.
Objective debate leavened by constructive criticism is the hallmark of any democratic structure and the Indian parliament has witnessed a deplorable fall in standards. Individual MPs have credentials that compare with the best in the world but the legislative collective now stands diminished and this southward progress has been noticed with every parliament from the 1980s onwards.
However, the most damaging and potentially corrosive development occurred a few days before the 60th anniversary celebrations and was ironically centred around the visionary father of the Indian Constitution — Ambedkar.
A witty and affectionate cartoon of Ambedkar astride a snail labelled as ‘Constitution’, with Nehru standing behind him holding a whip first appeared in the ‘Shankar’s Weekly’ on August 28, 1949. The pithy message was that the framing of the Constitution was proceeding at a ‘snail’s pace’ — and that Ambedkar and his colleagues had to be prodded to expedite the process. Harmless visuals and far from malicious or insulting to any of the protagonists — including the snail. This image entered textbooks for school children a few years ago and it appeared that this was a non-event as far as the Indian elected representative was concerned.
But all hell broke loose on May 11 in parliament with some irate members flaunting the said textbook and terming the cartoon “insulting” to Ambedkar. Let alone a reasoned debate, since the incident related to the iconic ‘Dalit’ leader, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal quickly announced the removal of the ostensibly insulting cartoon from the textbooks.
Sadly on the eve of its 60th anniversary, the profile of India’s parliament was diminished. But worse was in store.
Some Dalit leaders went ballistic and adopted positions that can only be described as populist and opportunistic. Ambedkar’s own preference for objective debate and a rational approach to contentious matters was jettisoned. Instead prickly, shrill and inflexible intolerance was deified.
The more excitable members of the Republican Panther of India party took the law into their hands and on Saturday vandalised the office of a Pune-based professor — Suhas Palshikar — for having cleared the cartoon for inclusion in the school books.
Was the leadership of the party remorseful of this turn of events? Far from it and went to the other extreme when its leaders justified the Pune vandalism by blandly stating that their colleagues “lost control” because of the “blasphemy” against Ambedkar.
Blasphemy — hello? When did we last hear that word apropos cartoons?
Given the cynical manipulation of the caste and religion-based vote bank in Indian politics, this very malignant and reprehensible sequence of actions beginning with the swift ban on the cartoon has not been condemned or opposed by parliamentarians in the manner that many anguished Indians had expected.
Maybe there will be some corrective in the days ahead. But if such crass appeasement of rowdy behaviour is the norm for the Indian parliament, then Churchill may yet be proved right — after 60 years — and the spirit of Ambedkar irreparably sullied.