THE MUCH-DELAYED Monsoon Session of Parliament that concluded eight days prematurely will go down in history as the first occasion when members of the Rajya Sabha sat in the Lok Sabha, and vice versa. I deliberately refrained from saying ‘only occasion’ because I get a nasty feeling in my bones that we are likely to see a repetition during either the Winter Session—if at all it is held—or the Budget Session.
In pure statistical terms, this Parliament was incredibly productive. The MPs diligently applied their minds to their primary job: enact legislation. Every one of the dozen or more ordinances that were promulgated since the lockdown began last March was enacted into law through due parliamentary process. These included landmark agricultural and labour reforms—changes which had been kept in suspended animation since 1991.
No doubt the Session was politically consequential, and not merely because a Congress and an Aam Aadmi Party MP danced on the table in the well of the Rajya Sabha. However, despite this flutter of excitement during a Sunday afternoon—when all good citizens should have been readying for a siesta, the Session lacked a soul. This didn’t have anything to do with the quality of either MPs or ministers—although it would have helped if some ministers possessed the parliamentary skills of the late, and much missed, Arun Jaitley. No, the listless Parliament had everything to do with the miserable fallout of Covid-19—the unusual seating arrangements.
I think anyone who has had the good fortune of becoming an MP will acknowledge that there is an extraordinary charm in sitting inside the chamber when the House is in session. This time—quite understandably—members had to be dispersed with some in the chamber, a few in the galleries and the rest in the Lok Sabha.
I was banished to the gallery above and had a vantage seat to observe the Sunday fracas that resulted in the suspension of eight MPs—although I am slightly perplexed that the list included a CPM MP from Kerala who basically did nothing offensive. But sitting in the gallery was just no fun and was akin to watching the proceedings on TV. Additionally, on two occasions I had a chance to make brief interventions, it was obligatory to sit and speak. It felt like participating in a Zoom meeting. The majesty of addressing the House while standing was lost.
Under the circumstances, I did the next best thing and decided to sit in the chamber after the opposition MPs, quite unwisely, chose to boycott the final two days of the Session. There were enough seats available to be in the House and maintain social distancing. At the same time, it felt distinctly odd to address the House while sitting down.
It was also not the same while retiring to the Central Hall for the mandatory cup of the Indian Coffee House brew. The great thing about the Central Hall—apart from the general atmosphere of cross-party conviviality—was the chance to meet members of the Lok Sabha, not to mention the large numbers of ex-MPs who routinely dropped by. The Central Hall is unquestionably the place for both good gossip and authentic political information. It is remarkable how much a politician opens up once he/she acquires the confidence to know that a fellow member of the tribe is likely to be discreet and never use the information for anything more than political understanding. When working as a journalist, there was always a thin wall between a politician and myself. The day I was accepted as a fellow politico, that wall disappeared. I had gained admission to the exclusive Club that is the Central Hall. And, to cap it all, it is a Life Membership.
This Session, the Lok Sabha kept different timing and the Central Hall felt relatively desolate. We felt their absence, just as much as we missed the plates of vada and chicken biryani. The small packets from Bengali Market didn’t seem right.
At the same time, I realise it was deeply courageous of the Government to risk a session during a raging pandemic. Yes, all sorts of precautions from testing and mandatory face masks to generous supplies of hand sanitisers were in place. However, it was still a grave risk and all it needed was one vulnerable MP to fall serious ill with the virus for the whole exercise of convening a session to be called into question.
I was careful, very careful. But at the same time, I am aware that I was plain lucky to have escaped a parliamentary virus. Or, am I speaking too soon?