I’m an Indian politician… on TV
(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters Corp)
Are they parliamentarians, or do they just play ones on TV? After pushing through proposals on foreign investment in the retail and the aviation sector late last year, India’s elected representatives apparently have decided to get as little done as possible during the current session.
On television, it’s another matter. Newsroom studios appear to be the preferred forum for debating problems and legislation that normally would be the province of parliament. Those include recent demands by the coalition government’s prime opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party, for the resignations of the prime minister, law minister and the railway minister over accusations that the government interfered with an investigation of improper allocation of coal mine licenses and certain other bribery allegations.
The Lok Sabha, or “people’s house,” has repeatedly adjourned in recent days, likely making it one of the least productive in its history. That’s bad if you want to pass bills, but it does help clear politicians’ schedules for the nightly news discussion programs. And that is not a bad thing, depending on whom you ask.
“The effort is to inform the public,” said BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman. “We don’t think even for a minute we’ll accept this charge that we are disrupting parliament … This government wants to have a debating club run without any accountability”.
Here’s a sample of what substitutes exist for debate in the Lok Sabha (May 6, prime time shows):
Show Header - Food Bill vs Railgate, Populism vs Controversy? Speaker of the House (i.e. the anchor) - Arnab Goswami; Participants – Bhalchandra Mungekar, Congress MP; Piyush Goyal, BJP MP; Subramanian Swamy, Janata Party Chief
Show Header – Dr. Dolittle Should Go? Speaker of the House – Rahul Kanwal; Participants – Meenakshi Lekhi, national spokeswoman, BJP; Mani Shankar Iyer, Congress MP; Subramanian Swamy
This kind of ersatz public debate taking place on the airwaves is not funny, but “tragic,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli. “This is part of the cynical attitude which marks Indian politicians of all parties.”
Rajdeep Sardesai, anchor and editor of CNN-IBN’s prime-time show, disagreed, as you might expect. “I think a prime time news show is different from parliament … a prime time news show gives the MPs a platform to represent their viewpoint in a manner that parliament sadly no longer allows them.”
There are various reasons that the BJP or other opposition parties might have to disrupt parliament. Experts say that they lack the numbers to defeat the Congress party-led ruling coalition by sheer votes, leaving them to resort to technical tactics – or general chaos. That in theory allows for back-room negotiations that could produce more orderly votes that go in the direction that some parties want. The current budget session of parliament ends on May 10.
The trouble? It endangers the passage of bills that are important for the economy at a time when a high current account deficit, inflation fears and a poor debt ratings outlook threaten the country. Various bills such as the land acquisition bill, food security bill and the ones which propose to increase foreign investment in pension and insurance sectors are stuck in parliament.
In the end, TV debates amount to publicity stunts, said D H Pai Panandiker, head of the RPG Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Things are going to go on like this … I am not expecting much to come out even of the monsoon session.”
(You can follow Aditya on Twitter @adityayk)