BJP leader Maneka Gandhi wears many hats. She gained attention after the death of her husband Sanjay Gandhi and left the Gandhi household under tumultuous circumstances. She tried her hand at politics with some of Sanjay’s associates but her initial efforts yielded unsatisfactory results. She made her mark as an animal rights activist and her column in the Illustrated Weekly, ‘Heads and Tails’, came to be widely read in the late 1970s. It was a subject that had not found much traction in India then but her incisive writing on the inhumane practices of the pharma industry with regard to the testing of drugs and chemicals on animals provoked revulsion and outrage. She made Pilibhit in the Terai, a region with a significant number of Sikh farmers, her turf and won several elections as a member of the Janata Dal, as an independent, and then as a BJP leader. Her long run of electoral successes, barring one Lok Sabha term she sat out in 1991-96, has made her the seniormost member of the House and resulted in Maneka being accorded the honour of addressing members of both Houses of Parliament in the Central Hall on September 19. Though she was not included in the Union Cabinet in the second Modi government in 2019 and her son Varun seems adrift of the party leadership, Maneka was fulsome in acknowledging her association with BJP which began when late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was calling the shots in the party. Clearly moved by the importance of the occasion, her address was gracious and carried the message of humility and public service. An individualistic streak has always been evident in Maneka’s career—as her showdown with Indira Gandhi long ago amply demonstrated—but she seems to have found her place in BJP and its Sangh culture. On the day MPs met in the new Parliament building for the first time and gathered in the Central Hall for the last, the MP from Sultanpur (Varun now represents Pilibhit) said she has seen seven prime ministers and the shaping of Indian history. She spoke of the women’s Bill cleared by the Union Cabinet on September 18 and said she has made the most of every minute she spent in Parliament and has remained a proud member of BJP.
Room for all
The new Parliament began functioning this week with a brief session wherein Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress’ Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury spoke and Union Law Minister Arjun Meghwal introduced the Bill to extend 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state Assemblies. The visitor and press galleries were full and a proper sense of the chambers became evident. MPs said the chambers were much larger and there was enough space on the benches that seat four each. In the old building, seating was always a squeeze on most mornings when MPs attended in large numbers and when important legislation were passed and full attendance was demanded by party whips. Even the seats set aside for ministers in the first three rows of the treasury benches were a tight fit with senior leaders sitting close together. There was a two-seat bench right at the front for the prime minister and the next senior minister (Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in the present government) and barely any distance between the rows that seated MPs and the parliamentary staff and secretary general. The high ceiling and a massive greenish backdrop to the new Lok Sabha chamber give it a feeling of space and a look, at least at first glance, not unlike the United Nations General Assembly hall.
While protesting that he was not given enough time to complete his speech on the first day of the new Parliament’s conduct of business, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referred to a design aspect of the chamber that may make protests in the well a little less effective than was the case in the old Lutyens’-era building. “Now you are placed at a height and when we protest, we may not reach you,” the Congress leader said wryly. He was referring to the opposition practice of carrying placards and raising them before the chair so as to ensure they appeared on cameras beaming the proceedings. It was a regular cat-and-mouse game between the Sansad TV control room and the MPs as the cameras would switch the second a placard came into view. In the new chamber, MPs can still carry placards and place themselves in front of ministers from the treasury benches when the latter are speaking but the ‘geography’ of the House is more challenging. Placards in the House became a common sight when MPs from Andhra Pradesh (mostly Congress) supported and opposed the formation of Telangana when UPA was in office. It was indeed an extraordinary sight to see ruling-party MPs disturb proceedings for months on end.
Prime Minister’s chamber
As was the case in the old Parliament, the new one also has a compact prime minister’s office not far from the entrance to the Lok Sabha chamber. A photograph put out by the government showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi behind a polished desk with a few chairs in front and a sofa and table in the background. The prime minister’s office in Parliament is the regular venue for a morning meeting of party whips, House leaders, and the parliamentary affairs minister to take stock of the day’s issues, including the notices served by MPs and parties they represent. And the office is handy in meeting visitors, including MPs and leaders as the prime minister’s staff utilise his long presence in the complex to schedule meetings that are more difficult to schedule when Parliament is not in session.
There was star presence at the new Parliament on September 19 with actors Kangana Ranaut and Esha Gupta, singer Sapna Choudhary and wrestler Babita Phogat accompanying BJP MP Manoj Tiwari, himself a popular actor, songwriter and singer, showing up at the main gate. The company proved an instant show-stopper with Parliament staff, employees and drivers accompanying MPs and even security personnel, not to speak of journalists and even MPs, taking photographs, with a few lucky ones even managing selfies. The crowd swelled as the personalities waved and obligingly posed for photographs.
Line of sight
The view from the media gallery in the new Parliament is a vast improvement over the older arrangement. In the old Houses, it was next to impossible to get a meaningful look at the proceedings if you did not have a seat in the front row. Even then journalists had to crane their necks and be mindful that their notepads and pens did not fall into the chambers below. This was quite a hazard as a slip would mean questioning by security staff which, even if procedural, was tedious business and sometimes meant a period of exclusion from the gallery. The new galleries have a vacant space and barricade upfront and yet the design of seats and the elevation provide an almost 80 per cent view of the large and cavernous chamber.