With Friday’s no-confidence motion, it is time to bid farewell to the way that Parliament has been reported to the public, and therefore to the behaviour of parliamentarians. In the traditional model, parliamentary news was filtered out to the public by a small band of beat reporters who sat in a press gallery and ate in the canteen. Parliamentary news was usually of a parliamentarian nature — solid, substantive and boring.
The launch of Lok Sabha TV in 2006, during the speakership of Somnath Chatterjee, changed the game. When the people are watching, their representatives behave differently. And so when a party wanted to protest, they held up placards in the House for the benefit of TV cameras, transmitting the message to their constituencies rather than their colleagues. And now, with Rahul Gandhi launching a benign love jihad in the House, the process is complete.
His histrionics were for public consumption, to be projected out to the electorate by television, and the complaints by ruling party MPs about parliamentary propriety are irrelevant. In fact, at one point, while speaking about the minimum support price, Rahul had explicitly stated that his message was for the farmers of India. And while it was all highly emotive, he did lay out his position on certain questions which were settled long ago but have unfortunately been reopened politically — what it means to be an Indian, or a Hindu, and so on.
Now, if TV is the document of record, how effective were the Speaker’s directions that the less high-minded parts of the discourse “would not be on the record”, or her promises to “expunge from the record”, to placate irate MPs? These would work only in the context of the business of the House. But the House was hearing the language of the campaign trail, and the message had already gone out to the electorate. It can’t possibly be expunged from thousands of servers, and their caches and mirrors, all over the internet.
Since televised drama reaches out to a wider audience, this could spell the death of substantive debate, which is the real business of Parliament. But then, wasn’t it dead already because of disruptions? And admittedly, the drama was riveting. Rahul has surprised the ruling party with an ad hominem attack followed by a hug — the flustered reaction of its MPs bears testimony to its effectiveness. He overturned a game board carefully polarised between the treasury and the opposition with inspired bipolar behaviour.
Out in the rain, the press was caught as flat-footed as the BJP. On Thursday morning, the TV channels were keeping the faith. Zee News was busy ticking off the Opposition for wasting one whole working day of Parliament, “when every minute counts. Do you have any idea how many bills are pending? Bills for the welfare of the people?” Times Now was celebrating a “big boost to NDA” from the support of allies (who fled later). India Today TV was highlighting the BJP lobbying allies it could not take for granted any more.
At the same time, it was asking D Raja of the CPI what the opposition had to offer except debate. Which is the main purpose of Parliament, isn’t it? But NDTV’s morning show got the plot — that the numbers were irrelevant, and this was an opportunity for opposition parties to articulate their concerns where it must be reported to the voter. While ruling parties have been accused of using state TV from the very birth of Doordarshan, this must be the first time that the Opposition has leveraged Lok Sabha TV.
Overseas, too, the rules of the game are being overturned, with the Donald on the rampage. Never mind the awkwardness when he inspected the Coldstream Guards along with the Queen of England, or the suspicion of the British press that the Queen silently trolled him with a brooch. It would have been lost on Trump, but apparently she always chooses a brooch appropriate to the occasion. The one she wore on that awkward day had been presented by the Obamas.
Never mind, also, the disastrous joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, in which he seemed to be dismissing the findings of his own security agencies in favour of Putin’s denial of Russian meddling of the election which brought him to the White House. Never mind the clarification the next day about having “misspoken”.
Instead, please see a neglected modern classic, footage of the Nato meet where Trump took its secretary general and former Norwegian president Jens Stoltenberg to task. The press had been let in for a bit, to witness Trump uttering the same sentence, with varying degrees of truculence, at least a dozen times: since Germany was enriching the Russians by buying their gas, could it expect the US to foot the bill for Nato, which protects Germany from the Russians? If this is diplomacy, conflict may prove to be less irritating.