On Thursday, Vice-President Hamid Ansari completes exactly two terms in office, the latter part managing a Rajya Sabha that was often in conflict with the government. Ansari has also served as India’s ambassador to several countries, was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN and also vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. As he leaves office, Ansari speaks to Indian Express on his two terms, the challenges he faced and those before the country.
What has changed in the course of your vice-presidentship?
So much has. One thing is public awareness, people are more informed about things and more misinformed, because the nature and instrumentality of communication leaves little room for pausing, thinking and moving on. People are reacting to happenings and situations in an instantaneous manner.
And what about politics? What strikes you as having changed the most?
We are a vibrant democracy. In 10 years, we have witnessed changes in governments in different states, at the Centre. Democractic involvement has increased, as revealed in voting percentages. Also, there is a certain disenchantment in sections of the public, the feeling that representatives they elected aren’t doing the job they should be doing.
Do you feel the institutional checks and balances are strong enough?
One basic principle of democratic governance is accountability, of those entrusted with responsibility of government. In the formal sense, the structure is there, in the practical sense, less so. Let me explain. What is the job of an elected legislature? Lawmaking, holding government accountable and discussing matters of public concern. Each of these functions needs time. If you look at the statistical data that is available, Parliament is (working) half the time from what it did in the 1950s and 60s. And the less said about state legislatures, the better… three or four or five days sometimes.So, taking the earnestness for granted, the elected representatives today… don’t get the opportunity to (work). Legislatures are not sitting long enough. Where is the time for discussions, debate or scrutiny of proposed legislation? The absence of scrutiny means there are hidden pitfalls that ensure that the matter goes to court, gets struck down.
Are you sanguine about the ‘idea of India’?
India is secure. But the ‘idea of India’ is a matter of very considerable debate. To my mind the idea of India which was crafted (is) one that is multi-layered, which accommodates a great deal of diversity. So one can’t say that there is this one ‘idea of india’, there are multiple ‘ideas of India’ and they all fit into each other. Sanguine? The ‘idea’ is being challenged with a certain frequency which makes me uncomfortable.
Can the basic idea of India be secured?
All these things depend on the public mind. If public mind is such that it sees a certain process of derailment and does not register it, then so be it. It has happened in other societies… societies have derailed time to time right through history.
You said cultural nationalism isn’t good. Why?
Culture, cultural nationalism, presupposes a degree of uniformity and homogeneity that just does not exist in India. When our founding fathers got down to drafting the Constitution, they had an existential reality before them, of a very diverse and plural society. They created a constitutional framework to accommodate that. So the idea of Indian nationalism has to be — and there is a long history of that, the struggle against British colonialism, where Rabindranath Tagore and a whole galaxy of leaders all said the same thing — that it is a very diverse society, a very plural society. Now, it is on the existence of a plural reality that you have put a State structure. On the one side it is democratic and on the other, secular. Secular, as plurality includes plurality of faith. There is no faith in the world that does not exist in India and there are faiths here that don’t exist anywhere else. Now if you are basing your structure on one single principle, which is citizenship, and if it’s a democratic structure, then citizenship is equal for all. So it must apply to each citizen, irrespective of whether he is 5 feet tall or 6 feet tall.
What do you feel about the idea of ‘One Nation, One Leader, One Tax, One Language, One etc etc’?
That does not exist in India.
But it is a political slogan?
It may be anybody’s slogan but it is so off the mark that I cannot see how it can fly. Now, even perceptions recently that emanated in all parts of the country vis a vis language. Now we know we do not have a national language. We have regional languages, we have official languages. When I was the Ambassador of India and I wanted to convince people fo the diversity of India, I would keep in my wallet a Rs 100 note. So I could show not just the English and Hindi but the array of languages listed on it and show it to everyone. These languages listed on the note are not dialects but languages and of a certain pedigree. So that is the complexity and diversity of India and you have to live with it.
We don’t eat the same food, we don’t have the same customs.
Several senior BJP ministers say the Rajya Sabha doesn’t matter.
I don’t comment on comments of individual members, but the Rajya Sabha was (formed) after a great deal of thought, because the founding fathers wanted this second chamber to reflect the diversity of India, and (for), equally important, recessed consideration of proposed legislation. The idea is that you must think about what you have done and the record proves that the Rajya Sabha, under different governments, has played that role.
How did you take the incident when the fact that you did not salute the Tricolour in the Republic Day parade created a fuss on social media and your office had to issue a statement (the year the then US President Barack Obama attended the parade)?
Look, if people don’t know what the correct protocol etiquette is, well, then that’s it. If one thing I know very well, it’s protocol. I have been the longest serving Chief of Protocol in the history of modern India. I know protocol and etiquette. I didn’t deviate from it.
Did the outrage puzzle you, irritate you or upset you?
It was silly, that’s all.
What do you take away from your 10 years as vice-president?
I was given a rule-book, I had to ensure that the rules were observed. It has been an interesting experience because you see the political process at work. Why do a set of individuals belonging to a certain point of view take a certain position on a certain subject, and then in changed circumstances, take a different position on the same subject! The great virtue of democracy is that those on one side can be on the other side. So it’s been a great learning experience, and the good thing about Indian democracy is that whatever happens in the verbal encounters within the chambers, outside they are still very correct and cordial with each other. No animus or hostility — all are on back-slapping terms with each other nearly.
All that you see is a very caliberated exercise and often lots of it is done for the camers, which is sad.
Live telecasts cannot be reversed, too much water has flowed under the bridge. It started as a way of introducing transparency now its used for grandstanding
There was considerable heartburn over the stalled women’s Bill and also Lokpal. Could this have been handled differently?
No, I had no choice, especially in the case of the Lokpal (in December 2011, Ansari was criticised for abruptly adjourning the Rajya Sabha sine die, without a vote on the Lokpal Bill.)… Parliament is summoned by the President and the President does it on the advice of the government. If the government feels the need for it to be extended, the initiative is with the government… What will happen if the Chair were to extend on her own authority? Then the Chair takes over the government.
What was your aim in starting Rajya Sabha TV?
As the Chair of the Rajya Sabha, you can say I was the prime mover, but I gave precariously little by way of instructions. Just, ‘One must reflect all points of view in discussions’, and, ‘If you want a role model, it must be PBS (Public Service Broadcasting), don’t get involved with advertising’. It’s not a place where people would shout at each other. RSTV has done well, that is the feedback I get.
What do you see as the biggest challenge before India?
We have a consensus that the most important thing for this vast population is inclusive development for it to move up. Inclusive development presupposes social peace. There cannot be any development if peace does not prevail within or without. So a long period of peace at home or abroad is absolutely vital for our objectives. Our objectives are laudable and universally recognised. The PM’s slogan is impeccable — Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. But then sabka saath means sabka saath. If you and I are standing together, then we can move together. But if you are standing 10 or 20 yards behind me, then you cannot catch up with me.
Any advice for your successor?
None, absolutely not. He (Venkaiah Naidu) is a very experienced public figure, he would know what to do.