May 7, 2002


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T V R Shenoy

Wanted: A new mindset for MPs

The light has gone out of our lives," Jawaharlal Nehru said on January 30, 1948. It has gone out of ours too. He was speaking metaphorically; I am not. The light has gone out. So has the water. The clean air -- and I am old enough to remember the days when Bombayites would come to Delhi to fill their lungs -- seems to have joined the list of vanishing items. And don't even get me started on the economy!

But none of this appeared to matter to our representatives in Parliament for the better part of two weeks. Both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha were shut down for days on end as the Opposition howled over the merits of debating Gujarat under Rule 184. Not over discussing the situation in the state, mind you, but over a procedural issue!

It was a bogus battle. The Opposition knew perfectly well that it lacked the numbers in the Lok Sabha. But I must say that the actual debate fell well below even my expectation (never very high to begin with).

Gujarat itself seemed to fall off the radar. Nobody in the Opposition seemed terribly concerned to ascertain why the riots began, nor how the situation deteriorated. The debate meandered into the familiar blind alleys -- communalism, secularism, and history lessons by the score. But in all the hours of 'debate' there was precious little discussion; all we got to hear were speeches that had been prepared well in advance.

And so, predictably, there was little benefit to be reaped. What message did the Lok Sabha send to divided Gujarat? That the House of the People was itself bitterly divided on some issues! Any little good that came out of the few calls for sanity dissipated in a hurry 24 hours later as Sonia Gandhi flew to Porbandar to accuse Narendra Modi of having turned "Gandhi's Gujarat into Godse's Gujarat"! What was the point of calling for restraint in Delhi if such inflammatory statements were to be made from a public platform in Porbandar?

May I add that it was also continued proof of Sonia Gandhi's ignorance of India? Porbandar may continue to be lauded as Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace in the tourist guides that foreigners read. The cold reality, however, is that the town has earned a notorious reputation for itself as the crime capital of Gujarat.

Some years ago, Kiran Bedi visited the town to pay her respects to the Mahatma. She was horrified to find that piles of garbage, and a stinking fish market, were in close proximity to Kirti Mandir, while the road to Kasturba Gandhi's house had been blocked by an ugly, illegal construction. The Magsaysay Award winner complained about all this in a letter to the Supreme Court.

Their lordships, she says, "asked me to widen the scope of the petition to include the criminal activities in Porbandar and the smuggling of weapons and RDX. People in Porbandar live in fear of the mafia and have no protection. It is the heart of criminal activities."

Sonia Gandhi, unlike Kiran Bedi, surely didn't bother to walk around the streets of Porbandar, or she could hardly have failed to notice the stench. But surely she has heard of the Shabana Azmi starrer Godmother and knows that it is based on Santokhben Jadeja -- one of Porbandar's better-known citizens today. And she might also mull over the fact that when Mrs Jadeja's son got married the guests included the then Congress chief minister of Gujarat. (It may be a coincidence, or a compulsion born of the Supreme Court's attention, but the crime rate has dipped a little in Porbandar over the past five years -- about when the Congress left office.)

Sonia Gandhi's fatuous remark was just another instance of the complete divorce between the realities on the ground and the speeches made by those who supposedly represent us. And it raises an issue, which has disturbing implications: just how far can politicians go before citizens at large decide that they aren't being represented adequately? Or represented at all?

In the last months of his life, it was precisely this question that troubled Biju Patnaik. His grim conclusion was that the youth of India had probably lost all faith in the democratic system and would not mind some form of mild dictatorship. He was howled down by his fellows in the United Front -- this was when Deve Gowda was the prime minister -- but the problem isn't going away.

I mentioned problems with water and electricity. The head of the Delhi Jal Board openly admits he is absolutely helpless to supply more water to the national capital. But when was the last time you heard this being discussed in Parliament? And it is not as if this problem is confined to Delhi. Several districts in Madhya Pradesh are already reeling under drought -- with the worst months of summer yet to come.

These are the real issues that trouble Indians. Discuss Gujarat by all means, but must time be wasted shouting about under which rule the debate must be conducted? Discuss the Budget, and don't just let it slip by almost without comment. And, if it isn't asking for too much, do try to present a united face from time to time, rather than widen the chasm as in the debate on Gujarat. (The only consensus achieved in the Budget Session was members voting themselves a hike in pay and pensions!)

In the next six months, India will get a new President and a new chief justice. The Lok Sabha will have a new speaker, and the bureaucracy shall have a new cabinet secretary. I am sure that they shall all be good men and true -- but unless our representatives get a new mindset, India's real problems will never be solved.

The laws, in hindsight

T V R Shenoy

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