NOT FOR NOTHING is the Central Hall of Parliament also called the nation’s hall of gossips. Here, MPs, past and present, mingle freely over steaming cups of coffee and sumptuous meals—highly subsidised by taxpayers. The bitterness and acrimony witnessed in the House dissipates once you are in the Central Hall.
Another constant is an array of journalists. A majority of them scavenge for morsels of news or insider information while a few others deign to offer gratuitous advice to favourite politicians. It is in the Central Hall too that superseded politicians discover kindred spirits in out-of-work journalists.
During the life of this and the previous two UPA Parliaments, a certain pattern has manifested itself. A frisson of excitement invariably runs through the Central Hall the moment BJP leader Arun Jaitley or Congress strongman Ahmed Patel surfaces to take their favourite corners of the circular hall with visages of the greats of the freedom movement smiling benignly from its walls. Journalists hurriedly take leave of whoever they might be with to gather around Jaitley or Ahmed bhai.
There is a difference, though. While Ahmed Bhai generally lunches in the Hall, ordering fulsome meals for everyone gathered around him, Jaitley, following a strict dietary regime after his bariatric surgery, would nudge someone to order coffee for him and his ever-growing fan club. During standoffs between the ruling party and the opposition, like the ongoing one over demonetisation, his audience gets so large that it virtually resembles a roadside meeting.
While Ahmed bhai generally dispenses information on current issues when probed, Jaitley freely provides insights into all and sundry matters. The latter being a more engaging conversationalist than his Congress counterpoint, even journos who are known to be hostile towards the ruling party swell the Jaitley audience against their better instincts. The BJP leader makes for delightful company, his elephantine memory coupled with social and media gossip leaving his audience enriched with juicy anecdotes and one-liners.
While still on the Central Hall, not every significant leader likes to spend time there. On the rare occasion when Sonia Gandhi shows up, or walks through the Hall to reach her parliamentary office, her dutiful and deferential flock invariably tries to catch her eye. They stand up with hands folded and heads bowed. The few who are able to elicit a nod in acknowledgement consider themselves fortunate. Ditto for Rahul Gandhi. On the rare occasion that either the mother or the son decides to spend a few minutes in the Hall, reporters salivating for important news immediately crowd around.
When Prime Minister Modi is seen crossing over from the Lok Sabha to the Rajya Sabha or vice versa through the Central Hall, most members of the ruling combine stand up, though the show of obedience is never as obsequious as in the case of Congresspersons vis-a-vis the Gandhis. Lest the impression grow that the Central Hall is a place for frivolous activity, bear in mind that the principles of the Republic were framed here.
IT WAS IN the Central Hall the other day that one heard the following exchange between a member of the ruling party and the opposition. For obvious reasons, names are being withheld.
Congress member: “Where is the guarantee that there would be no further generation of black money after demonetisation?”
BJP member: “We should leave alone the mafia don extorting money from traders, menacing women and generally holding the entire town to ransom because there is always the possibility of another don taking his place?”
POST-DEMONETISATION all of us have our favourite stories. Here are my favourites:
• The neighbourhood chemist in an upmarket residential complex was surprised to get a call from his long-time customer. The old lady said she was sending across Rs 1 lakh, in old and duly scrapped notes, of course, to be adjusted against medicines that she might purchase in the coming weeks and months. The chemist grabbed the ‘advance’ with alacrity.
• Then there was this property deal for a plush bungalow in a tonier part of New Delhi, settled only a couple of days before the November 8th Modi bombshell. It seems that the black component of Rs 30 crore had already been paid while the remaining Rs 110 crore via cheque was to be paid at the time of ownership registration. Post-demonetisation, a thoroughly shaken seller demanded replacement of the old notes while the buyer said ‘Nothing doing’. Eventually an intermediary settled the issue, with both parties taking a hit of Rs 15 crore each.
• The story that should warm the cockles of all honest Indians came from an industrial belt in South Delhi. Workers of a textile unit refused to accept cash towards their salary for the next three months and also refused to stand in queues outside banks to launder their employer’s black money. The poor are not without their conscience, you see.