Channel Surf NDTV 24X7
I just watched a debate on the validity of privileges enjoyed by the Members of Parliament on NDTV 24X7 moderated by Sunetra Choudhury. The panelists in the debate were Bahujan Samaj Party MP Vijay Bahadur Singh, a young MP from Jharkhand Ajai Kumar – who I believe also happens to be a member of the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, Joint Commissioner of Delhi Police S Garg, former bureaucrat and Loksatta party politician Jayaprakash Narayan, senior editor of Hindustan Times Shekhar Iyer and newslaundry‘s own Abhinandan Sekhri – who was introduced as a commentator and member of Team Anna.
The immediate impetus for the debate was Sonia Gandhi’s alleged exhortation that MPs should be divested of the red lights on their cars. By and large, the debate concentrated on these red light privileges. The only member of the panel who supported having red lights for MPs -. Vijay Bahadur Singh of the BSP – was comprehensively minced by all others and made to look a pathetic figure.
He tried to make a robust defense by stating that red lights were necessary as they helped in his interaction with his constituents by minimizing the travel time as he was able to evade red lights! It was refreshing to note his parliamentary colleague, Ajai Kumar lambast his logic pointing out that the representatives were expected to familiarise themselves with the everyday travails of people they claim to represent and if that meant being held up by traffic signals, so be it. The other panelists supported this contention and I was particularly struck by the stand taken by the Joint Commissioner of Delhi Police.
I have personally held Delhi Police in very low esteem, so it was an eye-opener for me to observe a senior official of that body take up cudgels against the errant politicians.
When this failed to make an impact, Singh resorted to the supremacy of the Indian Constitution and the privileges it accords to the MPs. Having read the constitution several times myself, I fail to recollect any clause that adumbrates on the privileges of parliamentarians. Maybe Singh can help those who are as ignorant as I am. This point was for some reason left open by the moderator and not rebutted – paucity of time I suspect.
Then Singh went on to state that the job of an MP required extensive travelling and social attendance at various parties and marriage functions for which red lights were a necessity. I could notice an amused smirk on Sunetra’s face and an exasperated gasp from Abhinandan. Clearly the debate was assuming psychotic proportions.
And psychotic it got with Singh’s next logic – that parliamentarians of all democracies are entitled to similar privileges elsewhere. He specifically mentioned Europe, the United States of America and Canada, and left me aghast when he stated that parliamentarians in Canada expect to be addressed as, “Your Excellency”. Here I was surprised that Shekhar Iyer, who had thus far played a major role in making Singh sound illogical, maintained silence on this point.
Singh claims to be a High Court advocate. I am not altogether sure how deep his knowledge and understanding of other democracies runs. For, if he was alluding to Pakistan, clearly he did have a point as the politicians there are even more privilege-oriented and corrupt than ours. But he specifically mentioned Canada – and I believe the statement requires complete rebuttal.
I have lived and worked in Canada myself and am acquainted with many senior politicians including the former Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, and the former Federal Minister, Ujjal Dossanj. And unless the ruling was implemented yesterday, no Canadian active politician is entitled to be addressed as “Your Excellency”, which is reserved exclusively for the Governor General and Provincial Governors. Pretty similar to our system.
Whether Singh made this absurd claim out of sheer ignorance or whether it was a deliberate attempt to hoodwink the panel and the viewers is not known. But I am sure in a mature democracy, an egregious error like that would merit censure. I do not believe that Singh is going to be censured though and his continuance of a privileged existence is not dependent on merit or erudition but on servile loyalty to his party leader.
He went on to make a number of other incoherent remarks such as the fact that Parliament was air-conditioned was an indication of entitled privilege and so on, which do not even merit mention. He did cut a very sorry figure. The moderator, Sunetra, was however I felt more charming to him than he deserved.
Personally I would have liked a wider debate on the system of privileges claimed by the politicians, senior mandarins and even retired politicians and their relatives. JCP Garg was on the mark when he mentioned that many of the people caught abusing the red light system were not even entitled to them, but were their kith and kin. This problem is nationwide and not confined to Delhi. The mayor of my own mofussil town entitles her boys to make use of the official car and the peons and they make a nuisance of themselves. It was nice to know that JCP Garg has prosecuted politicians for this offence. Also reassuring was Shekhar Iyer’s contention that journalists themselves are not averse to this practice.
We live in a society that is riddled with status symbols and, no matter how much politicians deny it, the fact remains that the majority enter politics for privileges and perquisites and the capacity to evade accountability rather than public service.
A glaring example can be found in a posh area of Lucknow itself. On my return from abroad, I noticed a nameplate inscribed with Jagdambika Pal ex-Chief Minister outside a huge bungalow. I had not known that he had been the CM and therefore asked. It turns out that Pal was sworn in as CM by a friendly governor without having a majority. He resigned in less than 24 hours and immediately claimed a house in Lucknow as his entitlement as a former CM. That he is from Basti, which is just a 3-hour drive from Lucknow, precludes any need for maintaining a residence in Lucknow subsidised by the state. A more vulgar display of politicians’ motives would be difficult to find.
On my recent visit to Delhi, I saw several politicians using black cat security. It clearly was a status symbol as I doubt whether any organisation would ever contemplate harming them.
Reverting back to Singh’s absurd contention about other democracies, I shall adumbrate a few of my own experiences. In 1982, I was queuing up before a Rail Ticketing counter at Euston Station in London to buy a ticket for Leeds. I noticed a gentleman behind me reading a newspaper with a government case. He was Sir Keith Joseph, then Industry Secretary and one of the most important ministers in the Thatcher Cabinet. On disembarking at Leeds, he queued up again for a cab. This was by no means unusual.
A year later I had to visit Reykjavik in Iceland for a meeting. My host took me for a drive and we entered the driveway of a house. We walked up and rang the bell. The door was opened by a very elegant and attractive lady. I was facing Vigdis Finbogadottir,the President of the country.
Years later when I relocated to Philadelphia and had to travel to Washington DC, very often I would find the US Senator from Delaware on the same train. Who was none other than Joseph Biden the current Vice President and then the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I also had occasion to visit Israel, -and was flabbergasted once to learn that Golda Meir, their ex-Prime Minister and well into her Seventies, used to take a bus for shopping without any security.
And true to that tradition when PM Rabin, a Nobel Peace Laureate, was assassinated his widow Leah was offered a political position and security. She turned down both stating that the fact that her husband was given an opportunity to serve the country was honour enough. She did not want anything else from the country.
Is there a lesson that our politicians need to learn here?