The questioning spirit

“How different is your present role as a Member of Parliament from your previous role as an Editor?”  Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay asked me practically at the end of the interview for the Lok Sabha TV under his series “Ekla Chalo”. “I don’t find any difference between the two roles; only the platform has changed,” I said.

“As a journalist my role was to defend the public interest. As a Member of Parliament, I believe my role is also to defend public interest.

“As an Editor I was writing editorials and columns. I will now be speaking editorials and columns!”

Nilanjan seemed pleased at the concluding byte of a serious interview that lasted over half an hour in which he asked my views on a lot of issues  that, rightly considered, ought to matter to an Editor, as also to a Member of Parliament.  He had done his homework on what kind of writing I had done in different papers I had edited. He was trying to explore soon after my nomination to the Rajya Sabha what kind of the new Member  Parliament had got.

Portals of Parliament House can be forbidding for a new MP. But having reported Parliament for years, as well as the Central Hall, I did not have the feeling a newcomer can have. I also knew senior MPs belonging to different parties and they all seemed to be welcoming, irrespective of their political dispensation.

A journalist who for years has reported public affairs, political parties and their ways, Parliament, different branches of government, policy-making and unmaking, how decisions are made and diluted down the line, is well-equipped to perform the duties of a Member of Parliament.

The questioning spirit, which most serious journalists have comes handy to an MP who ought to focus attention of the government and the House on various issues that matter to the people. By very nature of their work, journalists know how to ask pointed questions. Ministers  are often vague in their answers, and require to be pinned down to the specifics.

An MP, who does his or her job seriously, has the inherent power under the Constitution, to ask questions and force the government give answers. Properly used, the Question Hour does make the government  somewhat accountable.

There is a watchdog role which both the journalists and Members of Parliament have  to perform. They both need to keep a check on what the Executive branch of the government is doing.

Journalists by the very nature of their work, react to the developments  fast. Often MPs  call the government’s attention on what the MPs think is a matter of urgent public importance. There can be short-duration discussions on some of the immediate issues. Even on government’s business an editor’s background helps to participate in the debate from different angles.

Today’s Parliament is not the kind some of us parliamentary correspondents grew up years ago. Stalwarts on the benches of most political parties could make  us in the press gallery proud of our Parliament. Hiren Mukherjee’s oratorical flourishes were remarkable for cadence of his prose, Indrajit Gupta always spoke sense. Atal Bihari Vajpayee could be both scathing and sarcastic in the same breath. Nath Pai could hold the House spell-bound commenting on foreign policy; H V Kamath was the walking Rule Book who often succeeded  in getting the proceedings   paused, not by shouting, but by citing a particular clause from the Book  to ensure that proceedings conform to parliamentary norms.  And then there was Madhu Limaye, who despite the fact that he was the leader of only a two-member Socialist Party, he could often push  the government on the backfoot by simply doing his home work well.  There was a galaxy of other MPs also who set high standards of parliamentary vigil.

Those were different days, and a different Parliament! There were sharp differences among the political parties and between the government and opposition parties. But no one rocked the boat. At best some opposition MPs would walk out. There was criticism, but no acrimony; An opponent’s view was  tolerated, even if inconvenient.

Adjournment of the House for the day was rare. And now we find that session after session have been washed out because the Government and the Opposition have not been able to resolve their differences.

Parliament those days enjoyed greater respect among the people than it does now. It was also taken more seriously by the media. Newspapers  reported the proceedings in much greater detail than now.

Televising the debates has made the members more theatrical with a marked tendency to playing to the gallery that has now got extended to over a billion people.

Whatever the political affiliation of the elected MPs, and whatever the issue before the House, they do listen to nominated MPs attentively— that is when the decibel level has fallen and cacophony has given place to workable silence.  Time at their disposal is certainly limited, but they are able to make their case. Whether they make an impact  on policy remains to be seen.

The difference in my situation is: In journalism I was fighting for more space, in Parliament, for more time – i.e. when the House meets and debate takes place!

When the Presidential notification nominating me to the Rajya Sabha came, I thought I should give up my job as Editor-in-Chief of the Tribune.  Editorship of four major papers was enough and the time had come to move on. And wasn’t I writing all along that MPs need to take Parliament more seriously?   Carrying on with Editorship along with membership of Parliament would have been unfair to Parliament, if not against the rules.

The written word has been replaced by the spoken word for  me. One can raise issues of vital public interest which at times are neglected by both the media and Parliament. I will be happy if I can make some contribution to that end during the next five years.

– Central Hall, October issue, 2011