Recently a friend asked what I would miss most about my life as a member of Parliament. I was busy winding up my eight-year-old household in New Delhi. I stopped packing and thought for a while. I had been an MP for three terms. It did not add up to the usual term of five years multiplied by three. But even eight years in this age of coalition governments is a considerable stretch of time. What would I miss most? Central Hall. That round domed hall with its antique fans which revolve in slow motion and where the heroes of yesteryears look down from their framed glory is etched in my memory forever.
There were historic occasions when I was present there. There were lighter moments to remember as well. Above all, there was an atmosphere of friendship and fellow-feeling among members of Parliament belonging to diverse political persuasions. Nobody would believe that two parliamentarians now enjoying a cup of coffee together had been shouting at each other five minutes earlier inside the chamber. For awestruck newcomers to Central Hall it was an opportunity to watch important political leaders in different moods.
The joint sessions of Parliament addressed by the president were somber, impressive occasions. I saw three presidents — Shankar Dayal Sharma, K.R. Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — in that role. The president came in a solemn procession flanked by and followed by the vice president, the speaker, the prime minister and others. There were turbaned sentries with colourful flags. When I was chairperson of the external affairs parliamentary committee, I was allotted a special seat. But I always chose to sit at the back, where I managed an aisle seat from where I could watch the progress of the procession.
Sometimes the solemnity of the occasion could be disturbed. During A.B. Vajpayee’s 13-day prime ministership the president’s English rendition went off smoothly. That year it fell on the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, Najma Heptulla, to read out the Hindi version. When she reached the point about banning cow slaughter, Mamata Banerjee jumped out of her seat and shouted, ‘‘No, no, no.’’ She was sitting between me and Vasundhara Raje. Both of us pulled at her sari since it was considered improper to disturb the presidential address. But Mamata walked out in a huff. Najma was somewhat startled, but continued with the speech.
Another joint session to remember was the one addressed by US President Bill Clinton. The hall was packed to capacity. He charmed every MP. After his speech there was a rush to shake hands with him. As he passed by, members scrambled on to benches. Not a very dignified spectacle perhaps, but it was ironical that many of the MPs were known for their strong anti-American stance.
But the Central Hall session I shall carry in my mind forever is the midnight session of August 15, 1997. It was the golden jubilee of India’s independence. It also happened to be the birth centenary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Preparation for this midnight session had been going on for a long time. We were told speeches by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi would be played on the occasion. I had been arguing for some time that the voice of Netaji should also be heard on this special day. At last one day I raised the matter in Zero Hour. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic thumping of desks that greeted my suggestion, cutting across party lines. Eventually I got approval from I.K. Gujral, who was then prime minister.
It was a very impressive midnight session, very emotionally charged. The Central Hall was filled to capacity. We huddled together on the benches. The ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech by Nehru was played. I wondered whether there were many in that gathering who had listened to the speech 50 years ago? I was a young girl at that time. I remember hearing it over the radio as I sat in our Nicholson Road home near Kashmir Gate. After Nehru, the husky voice of Mahatma Gandhi cast a spell over Central Hall. The announcement by Speaker P.A. Sangma that a speech by Netaji would be played was greeted with a thunderous roar from the audience and a continuous thumping of desks. Then there was Netaji speaking in Hindustani. During the five-minute speech people burst into spontaneous applause at the end of every sentence. I looked up at his portrait. There he was reading the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of Azad Hind as his voice echoed through the hall on the 50th anniversary of India’s freedom.
The writer was a member of the 11th, 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas