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Legislators, do u read us?
April 24, 2003
On October 9, 1918, the leaders of a Finland newly liberated from Russian rule met to elect a new ruler. For some reason or the other -- whether gratitude or simple miscalculation is something we shall never know -- the Finnish Diet elected a German prince, Friedrich Karl of Hesse, to be their king. A little over a month later, on November 11, imperial Germany had been forced to sign an armistice with the victorious Allies, and the prince, like the rest of his royal relatives, had other things to occupy him.
I thought this crazy episode marked the epitome of bad timing by any national legislature. (How could the Finns not have realised that World War I was ending badly for the Germans so late in the day?) But that was before our own Parliament spent two days debating whether to 'condemn' or to 'deplore' the actions of the United States in Iraq -- passing the resolution precisely as Baghdad was falling!
One can, perhaps, make some excuse for the Finns, isolated as they were in the frozen north of Europe and with little knowledge of foreign affairs thanks to the centuries of Russian colonial rule. But what explanation is there for the incredible sense of timing exhibited by our own legislators?
One can only blame it on inertia. Some politicians had ready-made speeches boiling away inside them, and they simply did not care to take the time to consider whether the time for such orations was past. But the entire episode raises an issue other than to wonder where there actually is a 'policy' in 'foreign policy' where India is concerned. And that is the role and the relevance of Parliament to our lives.
Forget about Iraq for the moment. Was there nothing else to occupy the attention of both Houses of Parliament for two days on end? The debate on the war in Iraq, please remember, came hard on the heels of the deliberate murder of innocent Hindus in Nadimarg in Kashmir. Have we really become so inured to the massacres in Jammu & Kashmir that the deaths in distant Iraq count for more than the killings in an Indian state?
And it is not as if there was nothing else to discuss. This is still technically the 'Budget' session of Parliament. How many hours do you think have been spent discussing the grants and expenditures of the various government departments rather than frivolous issues? And yet control of the public purse and scrutiny of all public spending is supposed to be the prime tool by which the legislature maintains some kind of check on the executive!
Or how about SARS? The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome had already made headlines around the world by the time that Parliament got around to discussing Iraq. Some say it may be the most virulent epidemic since the Spanish Flu killed millions immediately after World War I. Surely then Parliament should have demanded an accounting from the ministries of civil aviation, health, and other concerned departments as to what steps they were taking to filter out infected travellers. But that too seems to have slipped under the legislative radar!
If SARS is too distant a threat, may I point out an issue slightly closer home -- water? India suffered from a drought last year, and the meteorological office has predicted a 21 per cent chance of another in 2003. But members of Parliament shouldn't need any scientists to tell them how bad the situation is, all they need to do is to look around them in Delhi. Delhiites have been complaining bitterly of lack of water.
In some residential areas, the supply is limited to a thin trickle lasting barely ten minutes. The situation is so bad that Safdarjang Hospital, reputedly one of the best in the city, went without water for four days (the time it took for the central public works department to get its act together). If that is the kind of situation in the capital of the country, I shudder to think what life is like elsewhere in India.
I am certain that the average Indian cares far more deeply about these issues -- clean drinking water, public health, the economy, law and order within the country -- than he does about the fate of Saddam Hussein. How long shall it be before the ordinary Indian citizen decides that Parliament has become totally unresponsive? And it is only a short step from 'unresponsive' to 'irrelevant'...
Finally, I should point out that the 'unanimous' decision to express India's 'ninda' was as farcical as the 100 per cent vote that Saddam Hussein received in his 're-election' six months ago. Cho Ramaswami and Kuldip Nayar, I believe, wanted to express their dissent, but were not allowed to do so. How fitting that a resolution backing a dictatorship was marked by an act of censorship!