A technical glitch, as the CEO of Lok Sabha TV claimed? Or a “tactical glitch”, to use Sushma Swaraj’s memorably (and presumably deliberately) oxymoronic formulation? Whatever the cause, all kinds of people had reason to be upset about the unannounced blackout of the live television feed of the Lok Sabha just as MPs began deliberating on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. After all, MPs lost an opportunity to stand up and be counted, variously, as champions of everything from Telangana to federalism to the Telugu language. Andhra voters were unable to follow the discussion around carving their state up, as they were entitled to do. And the public at large was deprived of an episode of one of India’s longest-running reality shows, whose stable of props has in recent times expanded to include pepper spray and face masks.
Depriving MPs of the oxygen of live coverage may well have been one of the unspoken (and controversial) motivations behind the cameras being switched off. Many believe, after all, that this is partly responsible for Parliament’s seemingly relentless slide into chaos. But is there any merit in the notion that turning the cameras off might actually help Parliament do more of the stuff it is meant to — such as debate, discuss and pass bills? Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure; it’s possible that our perpetually on-camera MPs would behave exactly as riotously if the cameras were switched off as they do under their relentless glare. (You’d think they’d get bored, but apparently not.) But I would argue, based on my research into the early days of television coverage of the Lok Sabha Question Hour just under 20 years ago, that this idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
For this research, I had to go back to 1994-95 — roughly the year before and after Question Hour began to be shown on TV in December 1994. The problem about going into the past, many would say, is that India was different. Indeed it was. Unlike today, there were no dedicated channels for the parliamentary broadcasts. To get around this, Doordarshan did the best it could: it broadcast the proceedings of the Lok Sabha Question Hour one week, and the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha the next. Odd, perhaps, especially in these “a channel-for-everything” days, but paradoxically useful in helping us figure out what really changed when television began to take Parliament to the public. In essence, the alternating broadcast schedule made it possible to see whether who spoke and what they spoke about was different when MPs knew, ahem, that they were on TV, than when it was just other continued…