On being Atal

Murkh nahin Mahaan Jhukta hai Dharti nahin Aasmaan Juhukta hai Hamaari vinarmtaa ka galt arth na nikaal lena ae Pakistan Aur yeh mat samajh lena ke Hindustan Jhukta hai!

Atal Bihari Vajpayee died on 16 August this year in New Delhi

-Ibrahim Hafeezur Rehman

Maut Ki Umr Kya Hai..

What is the span of death, just a few moments! Life is a continuum of today and not tomorrow… Famous words of a profound poet and statesman. A son of the soil who was the Prime Minister of the country for six years and a tall leader in Parliament for over five decades. He was a man who in his own words had a vision of India free of Hunger and Fear and an India free of Illiteracy and Want. In his short stint as the Prime Minister of the country he initiated number of path breaking programmes including taking India’s nuclear programme to its logical conclusion. He was an extraordinary person who once said, “Koi chhote man se bada nahin ho sakta, aur koi tute man se khada nahin ho sakta” (No one can become big if he thinks or acts small and no one can stand erect if his heart is broken),  indicating both the greatness and sensitivity of the soul.

One could learn a number of lessons from his political life but the most important one which needs to be emphasised in the current cesspool of internecine politics is the parliamentary and public life interaction related decorum that he observed. He was stickler to parliamentary norms and a follower of its traditions acquired by observing his seniors and stalwarts of the freedom movement. The Indian Parliament is modelled more on the British System where recently you had a case of a British Minister coming late for a question that pertained to his ministry and after arriving the first thing he did was to profusely apologise and then resign. In India also the very first speech in parliament, “Tryst with destiny” set the standard of language, statesmanship and eloquence in Parliament. The freedom movement and the leadership it produced was full of brilliant, upright and cultured stalwarts who graced the hall and the corridors of the temple of our democracy. In that golden era of Parliament all leaders sat down and produced intellectual and convincing arguments to justify and propagate their positions. If there was any discord or acrimony it was subtle or within the well defined parameters of civility. Apart from inherently being suave and cultured the reason for such decorum was that these leaders held the house and its proceedings in high esteem. It was customary for everyone to be present in the house. Everyone came well prepared to defend, debate, convince, accept or reject. Humour and sarcasm were part of the process but always in good taste and not directed to demean anyone.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee having spent more than half of his life in parliament was a follower and an upholder of highest standards of parliamentary norms and conduct. He was passionate about debates, always very witty, poetic and above all constructive in his dealings in parliament. While following lofty standards he also had immense humility as was evident when on the death of the veteran erstwhile leader of Rajya Sabha, Hafiz Mohammad Ibrahim, Atalji said that he had learnt parliamentary skills and decorum from him. The parliament is the platform and forum where questioning and accountability is sought on performance of the executive and serious debates are undertaken on political, social, economic and environmental issues. However, as in most things times have changed with this temple of democracy becoming sullied both in letter and spirit. The debates are now fewer and far in between dharnas and boycotts. It is this role of parliament which is now being undermined and this is irrespective of party affiliations and ideologies. The undermining is also reflected by the fact that senior politicians often do not attend parliament on a regular basis. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister of India every time the leader of opposition spoke or any major debate happened he made it a point to sit through the entire proceeding. As a Parliamentarian he respected and enthusiastically participated in debates instead of following the Dharna and boycott route. Politicians nowadays even when they are around in Delhi (or even in the Parliamentary precincts) quite a few of them do not like to sit in the debates or participate relishing more the gimmickry and tamasha associated with boycotts.

In a number of cases the language, gestures and overall conduct have all fallen to abysmally low levels. In debates and discussions content has given way to histrionics; statesmanship to gimmickry and mimicry; analysis to allegations; attention to disruptions; applause or appreciation to insults, mockery, booing and shouting; camaraderie to derisiveness and one upmanship. Consequently very little constructive comes out with crucial bills and motions passed without proper debate or discussion. Since the conduct in the house is such it is to be expected that political discourse out of it would be even worse. As a result you have speeches, interviews and press interactions in which instead of serious points the discourse is based on derision, mimicry, name calling and even abusing which have become the order of the day. More sickening is the fact that party supporters in general have started emulating their leaders and indulge in same kind of conduct and intolerance towards each other. As a result you have leaders suing each other for trading insults and supporters often resorting to threats or even violence against one another. Of course, this is representative of declining societal values but since it is not only endorsed but actively indulged, promoted or propagated by the political class it has now taken epidemic proportions and is threatening the very edifice of democracy.

In contrast to the current scenario leaders like Atalji could be stinging in their sarcasm and wit but never demeaning or personal in their attack. While a major chunk of opposition was revelling and highlighting the Foreign angle related to Sonia Gandhi he not only refrained from using it but actively spoke against it and urged his partymen to follow suit.  At the same time it is important to point out that Atalji was not soft on opposition, internal or external. To a statement from Pakistan Prime Minister saying that Pakistan is incomplete without Kashmir Atalji retorted India is incomplete without Pakistan. In his inimitable poetic style he told Pakistan that,

Murkh nahin Mahaan Jhukta hai

Dharti nahin Aasmaan Juhukta hai

Hamaari vinarmtaa ka galt arth na nikaal lena ae Pakistan

Aur yeh mat samajh lena ke Hindustan Jhukta hai!

(It is not fools but wise who bend,

It is not Earth but Sky that descends,

Don’t misconstrue our politeness for weakness

O’ Pakistan

to think that India bends.)

He could also be endearingly witty as in an election rally in Bihar he said, “Main Atal bhi hoon aur Bihari bhi hoon”! Moreover, leaders of that era possessed immense character and were not vindictive as is indicated by the fact that even though Mrs Indira Gandhi had put Atalji behind bars during emergency he was always respectful towards her and usually had words of praise for her leadership. Alas! the same cannot be said of the leaders now who do mimicking and highly personalised attacks stooping to the lowest possible level.

It is high time that politicians cutting across party lines drawing inspiration from Atal Bihari Vajpayee sit down to seriously dwell on their conduct and on the process and proceedings within and outside parliament. It is now essential that they themselves evolve a code of conduct which they should enforce. It may be worthwhile to form a forum cutting across party lines that ensures and censures any violations without fear or favour. The speaker also needs to draw up a code and enforce it objectively and stringently. For instance, an amendment can be brought in where if a member does not have 80% attendance without any legitimate reason should be expelled from the house. Political parties also need to come out with their own codes to ensure that not only their leaders but supporters also do not step out of line. Democracy thrives and grows on constructive discourse and discussion and any decline in it results first in weakening and then decay of the institutions associated with it thereby threatening the very edifice of democracy. We need a clarion call to rectify the current scenario and save the sacred temples of our democracy.

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