| Signifying something
Although the outcome of the no-confidence motion was never in doubt, the debate itself was not entirely devoid of suspense and guilty pleasures. The source of suspense was not the end result, but the manner in which the different protagonists would reveal themselves. What would be the Congress’s line of attack' Would we finally learn what Sonia Gandhi actually thinks' How would the smaller parties position themselves' Which new weapon in the arsenal of belligerence would the National Democratic Alliance employ' But the real source of fun was the astonishing fact that almost every single politician who spoke incriminated himself. The easiest way to rebut any speaker was to impugn their moral authority on the subject on which they were speaking. If this debate revealed anything it was the extraordinary fact that almost our entire political class lives in glass houses, and yet throws stones.
Sonia Gandhi began promisingly and we got something resembling a speech. But it was very difficult to shake off the impression that the Congress still has a steep climb ahead if it wants to occupy the high moral ground. Corruption, defence lapses, riot victims, slow economic growth are hardly issues on which the Congress carries any imprimatur of conviction. Sonia Gandhi’s challenge was to restore credibility to the Congress, and emancipate it from its own recent past. By that yardstick she failed miserably. Her only significant intervention, apart from the read speech, was a vague insinuation that many significant detainees during Emergency had asked Indira Gandhi for clemency. In the absence of any evidence, this insinuation was particularly inept, but as an ideological signal it was even more of a disaster. Only someone in a cognitive time warp could think that asking for mercy from prison was a worse assault on this democracy than the Emergency itself.
Her criticism of economic reforms, took the credit away from one of the few good things the Congress did. It may have worked well as a signal to potential allies on the left, but it also revealed that the Congress does not know where it stands. In the end the debate proved to be a successful assault on her credentials, more than it was an attack on the government.
Chandra Shekhar somberly tried to remind the house that these proceedings were a farce. Why go on with them, when all parliamentary conventions were being flouted, when matters of graver substance than an audit report had been passed over in silence by the house' Good question. But coming from someone who, as caretaker prime minister, bypassed Parliament to indulge in an economically myopic spending spree, this solicitude for parliamentary convention seemed about as insincere as Narendra Modi’s profession of secularism would be.
Vijay Kumar Malhotra, whose speaking style might have come from a Bollywood role scripted for Amrish Puri, had the audacity to accuse the communists of being traitors to Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement; never mind if the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh legitimized his assassination. The smaller parties were engaged in the bizarre logic of boycotting the defence minister and then claiming that he had not defended himself to their satisfaction. Listening to speech after speech seemed almost surreal: as if there was no ground for anyone to stand on.
As a pure sparring match the NDA won hands down. The Congress is curiously bereft of imaginative speakers. Its front benches consist of Shivraj Patil, who appears to have more faith in his command over the technical rules of the house than on the substance of the issues; Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who unfortunately is much heard but rarely understood, and S. Jaipal Reddy, earnest and well meaning but no capacity for being succinct or precise. No match for the brazenness of Vijay Malhotra, the charming clarity of Sushma Swaraj, the trade union histrionics and dramatic flourishes of George Fernandes and the graveness of Advani and Vajpayee. Alas, if this were an election debate the choice comes down to this: a Bharatiya Janata Party whose ideology is destructive and a Congress that is destructive by having no ideology or leadership.
Still, in an odd sense this debate was reassuring. It was very tempting to dismiss the whole thing as a self-serving charade in which people are the victims. But as Clifford Geertz once wrote of the Balinese theatre state, “their dramas were mimetic of themselves; they were, in the end, neither illusions nor lies, nor sleight of hand, nor make believe. They were what there was.” The debate itself was in substantive terms undoubtedly something of a farce, more like WWF wrestling than a real combat. Each side pretended to hit and the other pretended to feel wounded.
But the conventions that allowed this drama to proceed were in the end more important than what those conventions were used for. It was difficult to shake off the feeling that this was, in the final analysis, a ritual fight amongst friends. The disruptions were choreographed, the sense of outrage members displayed were stylized, and you can imagine all the members having a good laugh together after they have had a good shout. It might be objected that all this is a distraction from real and pressing problems, but that objection already presupposes that there is a distinction between the ritual and the practical organization of the state. It is a distinction that would be lost on most politicians and perhaps most voters; the rituals are what makes us who we are. What binds us is not the interests we share but the rituals we participate in.
More than the insidious duplicities of our political class, the debate revealed the true secret of our democracy. It is contained in those suggestive three words repeatedly invoked by all parties, “Mr Speaker, point of order.” This was the mantra that all parties could recite, whose authority they could all defer to, and the only thing that provided a modicum of restraint for the cacophony of positions and adolescent interruptions.
So long as “points of order” are admissible the show can go on. They can allow us to survive the onslaughts of veniality, incompetence and even occasional murderousness. This may be a slender thread on which to place the burdens of democracy, but this is all we have. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “men living in democratic countries do not readily understand the utility of forms; they feel an instinctive contempt for them. Forms arouse their disdain. They rush impetuously toward the object of each of their desire and delays exasperate them…Yet it is this inconvenience that men of democracies find in forms makes them so useful to liberty, their principal merit being to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak. Thus democratic peoples have more need for forms than other peoples and naturally respect them less.”
It is perhaps inevitable that we express our contempt for the forms that our Parliament enacted. The characterization of these proceedings as “all form and no substance” would not be inaccurate. But to lament this fact too much would be to go too far. The victory of form over substance is still a condition vastly preferable to a condition where substance triumphs with no formal restraints whatsoever. We sometimes feel as if we are close to a condition resembling Italy at the onset of Fascism in 1927 where a contemporary observer said “there are few who do not speak ill of Parliaments”. Parliament may have done little to redeem itself, but that is all the more reason to cling on to it as an institution with all your life.