Saturday, February 4, 2023

Salve after Mindless Salvos

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The Constitution  Day debate was marked by acrimony and verbal dual till Modi reached out and smoothened ruffled feathers

By Ajith Pillai

THANK God there were no adjournments and walkouts! That would have diabolically complemented the bitter mudslinging between the treasury benches and the Opposition that dominated the two-day special session of parliament last week. It was ostensibly convened to discuss the nation’s commitment to the hallowed constitution of the republic and as a solemn and celebratory occasion to mark the 125th year of the birth of Dr BR Ambedkar.

But it was unfortunate that it dithered into a mindless show of one-upmanship that was, for the most part, regrettable. In fact, the architect-in-chief of our constitution and the principles he stood for were lost in the din of verbal exchanges in which party agendas were given top priority. One can safely say that neither the BJP nor the Congress came out smelling of roses.

Narendra Modi In Parliament
                                                       Narendra Modi In Parliament

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh set the tone and tenor of the debate on day one. He started well by paying tributes to Ambedkar, Patel and Nehru as the architects of the Indian republic. But he soon strayed into familiar Hindutva-RSS territory which seemed to occupy much of his mindspace.

Indeed, donning saffron bifocals, Singh blundered along, ruffling feathers. Ambedkar, he said, was subjected to humiliation but he never ran away from India (a thinly veiled reference to Aamir Khan’s much misquoted statement). The home minister then courted further controversy by pointing out that Ambedkar deliberately did not use the words “secular” and “socialist” in the preamble to the constitution. These were later introduced through the 42nd amendment. The unstated implication was that Ambedkar disapproved of the two words. This, as we all know, is far from the truth.

Singh did not stop there. He pronounced: “People mistake Ambedkar as a leader of the Dalits. He is actually the Rashtra Rishi (national sage) of this country.” That would certainly have not gone down well with Dalits. To add insult to injury, he pouted this gem: “What is more democratic than Lord Rama, who took Sita’s agni pariksha (trial by fire) on the basis of comments by a person of low social standing?” The honourable home minister while drawing references from ancient Hindu texts perhaps forgot that Ambedkar had renounced Hinduism because of its caste discrimination and embraced Buddhism.

Sonia Gandhi
                                                                    Sonia Gandhi

Neither did Congress leaders do themselves proud by playing football with Ambedkar and the Constitution Day debate. Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha and a Dalit leader, countered Rajnath Singh with this divisive remark: “We (Dalits) won’t go anywhere. It was the Aryans who came from outside, not us. We are from here.”

And Sonia Gandhi needlessly referred to the history of Indian Independence to reiterate something that is known and recognised: that the Congress had a major role in freeing the country from British rule and that Ambedkar was closely linked to the party. The Congress president also quoted Ambedkar in good measure to substantiate her point: “It is because of the discipline of the Congress Party that the drafting committee was able to pilot the constitution in the Assembly with the sure knowledge as to the fate of each Article and each amendment. The Congress Party is, therefore, entitled to all the credit for the smooth sailing of the draft constitution in the Assembly.” It seemed as if she was desperately trying to appropriate the Ambedkar legacy.  Was it really called for?

Day two saw Arun Jaitley launching a broadside against the judiciary for striking down the NJAC Act and the 99th Constitutional Amendment which sought to give politicians and civil society a final say in the appointment of judges to the highest courts He went on to attack judicial activism which he said had crossed the “Lakshman Rekha”.

Jaitley did not spare the Congress either when he compared the misuse of the constitution during the Emergency to repressive measures imposed in Hitler’s Germany. As Union finance minister one would have expected Jaitley to be more measured and less volatile. All the more so, since the crucial GST Bill has to be cleared during the Winter Session and the government requires the cooperation of the Opposition in that regard. But there seemed to be no stopping the finance minister as he bulldozed along.

It was left to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring some semblance of calm into the proceedings. He not only reached out to the Opposition but even addressed—perhaps for the first time—Sonia as “Madam Sonia Gandhiji”. It was a conciliatory prime minister who wanted to undo the damage done in the last two days by some in his party and cabinet colleagues. His body language and tone of voice was shorn of its earlier arrogance.

This quote from Modi summed up his position and predicament before the Winter Session post the Bihar rout: “I have said this before and will say it now that this country would not have advanced without contribution of all prime ministers, of all governments of the past and of all shades of people. I accept their contributions with gratitude. Yes, there are expectations and when those expectations are not met complaints are made but that’s the beauty of democracy.”

Perhaps, the pragmatic prime minister realised he has no option but to take the Opposition with him. So he took the lead in smoothing ruffled feathers.


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