Back to Bombay from Delhi. What a whirlwind trip! I stayed in Varanasi for a night. It is an addictive place. I will go again and again and take some friends. More about that in my next blog though. I know some of you are eager for me to share my experience about Kashi but this blog is about an absolutely rivetting experience in the heart of democracy.
It is not easy to govern a country like India. So complex so layered and so crazy. Historian Ramchandra Guha compares it to the European Union except that there are more languages and more people than EU. And it is a young democracy that is daily negotiating its identity and place in ‘glocally’. So how do elected representatives look after the people and make sense of it all?
One night in Delhi I was a fly on the wall during an interesting meeting of elected members of Parliament (Lok Sabha members), nominated members of Parliament (Rajya Sabha members), journalists, social workers, government officials and celebrities. They all wanted to bring to the attention of modern India the burning issue of malnutrition. One in in every two children in India is malnourished. It is a complex issue (as is everything in India) but what fascinated me was the camaraderie between opposing parties and the fact that this was a voluntary group cutting across political ideologies. They all knew the issue needed attention, they all knew that sixty years after independence malnutrition should have been eradicated from the country. Yet…
And then 29 February 2008 was one of the most memorable days of my life. I was in Parliament House, in the public gallery as the Finance Minister of India PC Chidambaram read the budget for 2008-09. I was there in the heart of the Indian Republic and democracy.
Parliament House is a huge circular building; an impressive colonial structure in which happen all things that affect India. http://www.indiasite.com/delhi/places/parliamenthouse.html
After passing through very tight security (they really do grope every body part) I was seated in the public gallery with a view worth a million dollars. Right in front of me was the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. To my right were the Opposition benches and to my left was the Government. PM Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar, PC Chidamabaram…they all came in one by one. The Baba Log (young MPs) sauntered in. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Naveen Jindal…the senior members Kapil Sibal, Sushil Kumar Shinde…leader of the Opposition LK Advani…all dressed to the gills and very swishy swadeshi. (Of course the film star MPs did not turn up.) Then walked in the entertainer Laloo Prasad Yadav. I know the man has history but I really wanted to see him read the Railway Budget. Unfortunately I did not get a pass.
It was interesting to see the difference between the Opposition and the ruling party MPs. The latter were confident and a trifle arrogant and full of veteren parliamentarians. Most of the young MPs in the Opposition were badly dressed and seemed totally down market. I know one cannot judge a book by its cover but one would have thought that being in Parliament since 2004 might have instilled a sense of occassion in them.
So PC read the budget. Money to education, relief to women, some crores for this and some for that…and then came his googly. A total waiver of debt for farmers across India. Everyone knows about farmer suicides in India. It is a sad story. India is an agrarian society at heart and farmers the lifeblood. PC first spoke about small farmers. Before he could carry on pandemomium broke loose. ‘A pharmer iz a pharmer’, someone from the Opposition yelled. Then more of them got up and started shouting. So the governing benches got up shouted back. The Speaker kept requesting the Opposition to sit down and listen to the rest of the Budget. So on and so forth. Laloo got up. Arre baitha baitha, (sit down) he gestured to his colleagues. PN Sangma (NCP MP from Meghalaya, part of the UPA Government) came across from his sit and asked his colleagues to sit. The PM and LK Advani were silent. They must have seen this a zillion times before. I had not.
India can have a maximum 552 MPs including the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. From across the length and breadth of the country. Such a huge, diverse country with so many people. Some things work, some don’t. There are those who try their best and there are those enamoured of power. Then there are the cynical types and those who think they have not done anything worth speaking of. Rajya Sabha member and world renowned Indian film director Shyam Benegal said at a dinner table conversation that as a member of Parliament he has not yet done anything worthwhile for the country and that he still has the capacity to be shocked. Isn’t that a good thing , I asked him. Then you don’t get apathetic about anything. The level of cynicism is high he said.
Still the work has to go on. Policies are made but implementation is a problem. There is energy but it does not trickle down. Or if it is at the grassroots level it takes time to flow upwards.
That day in Parliament and the meeting before reiterated that noble intentions abound. Never mind that the Budget was populist and indicates early general elections and never mind as civilians most of us don’t realise that a good country is not about good government only. It requires participation from people.