House Elders

As independent India turns a youthful 68 this week,Ruhi Tewari meets some of the oldest members of Parliament. Then young men who witnessed the birth of a new nation,they have proved capable of adapting to the demands of a changing country,particularly its politics

Written by Ruhi Tewari | Published: August 11, 2013 5:19:40 am

Jai Narain Prasad Nishad,83

JD(U) MP from Muzaffarpur,Bihar

He admits his “unofficial age” must be over 90,though “officially”,he is 83. “There were no birth certificates during our times. Our school teachers would write a date and that would be our official age. But I calculate my age according to the plague of 1928. I remember climbing up a ladder in our mud house and seeing a dead rat with tiny chocolate-brown insects feeding on it. Since I was old enough to remember that and old enough to climb a ladder,I must have been around 7-8 years old then,” says Nishad.

Over these long,unresolved years,a few habits have stuck. Like his trademark green muffler. The veteran parliamentarian says it has become his “identity” now. “Green signifies prosperity and progress,” he says.

The four-time Lok Sabha MP is proud about something else—he has never won an election under the same party. “I have won each election under a different party. Sometimes the party changed or got a new avatar,sometimes I changed the party. I have been in almost all parties in Bihar,” he says.

Nishad,who started his career in the Navy,switched to the Indian Army in 1964. His tryst with politics began in 1969 when he was elected chairman of the Hajipur Municipal Committee,a position he held on to for three consecutive terms. However,he ran out of luck when he contested the Assembly elections—he lost in 1980 as a Lok Dal candidate and in 1984 on a Dalit Mazdoor Kisan Party ticket. He then joined “friend” and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar’s Samajwadi Janata Party,but without much success. It was only in 1996 that he won his first Lok Sabha seat—from Muzaffarpur on a Janata Dal ticket. He also became a Union Minister of State with Independent charge. He was re-elected to the House in 1998,but this time on an RJD ticket.

At this point,Nishad’s memory fails him. “I did win one election as a Samata Party candidate,but when…I am confused,” he says. After some prompting from his aide,Nishad settles for the year 1999. “However,in 2004,George Fernandes contested from my seat so I joined the BJP and became a Rajya Sabha member,” he says. But he soon left the BJP too. “I supported a rival candidate in the Assembly elections and was disqualified,” he says. That’s when he joined the JD(U) and stayed on.

An old-hand in the Lok Sabha,Nishad blames the “declining standards of conduct” in the House on the live television telecast of proceedings. “The day we stop this live telecast,all these disruptions will go down. Earlier there was discipline,greater attendance but now times have changed…It is also the government’s fault,” he says,raising his pitch.

Politics,he says,has empowered him socially. “I belong to the fishing community. People come to meet me now because I am an MP. Nobody would have wanted to meet me if I was a fisherman. They would have said I stink of fish,” he says.

Will he contest the next election? “I have grown old.” And then,with a wry smile: “Now if I get a chance,I will fight elections for president. Only that is left.”

Shafiqur Rahman Barq,83

BSP MP from Sambhal,UP

As a politician,Shafiqur Rahman Barq has covered some distance—from the Republican Party of India to the Swatantra Party to Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal to the Samajwadi Party and now,to the BSP. A journey so long that Barq has to jog his memory to remember the year and the party he began his political career with.

At 83,the usually soft-spoken MP hides a feisty side. Earlier this year,he walked out of the Lok Sabha in protest against Vande Mataram being played at the closure of the budget session.

Now a four-time MP,Barq contested—and lost—his first Assembly election on a Swatantra Party ticket. After he lost the next election too,he joined Choudhary Charan Singh in 1970. That clicked. He won his first Assembly election from Moradabad in 1974 and since then hasn’t looked back. Barq then won four terms to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly,joined the Samajwadi Party and became Cabinet minister in the state from 1990-91. But in 2009,when the SP denied him a ticket,he joined Mayawati’s BSP.

Call this party-hopping,but Barq sees it as good old-fashioned “experience”. “It is good that we talk about young leaders,but a system with just the youth and without the wisdom of the older generation will be unbalanced,” he says.

Ram Sundar Das,92

JD(U) MP from Hajipur,Bihar

“Why have you come to interview me? There are so many more intelligent,more important people. Go talk to them,” says Ram Sundar Das,who,at 92,is the oldest member in the current Lok Sabha. A heart ailment has left him weak and he is in no mood to talk. “I get palpitations if I talk too much. I am unwell today,” he says,his voice quivering as he raises his pitch.

Before he started his political career with the Congress Socialist Party in 1945,Das was a school teacher,his aides say. He joined politics inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and the Quit India Movement of 1942. Das went on to join the Praja Socialist Party in Bihar and became a member of the Bihar Legislative Council in 1968,a stint that lasted almost a decade. In 1979,Das became the chief minister of Bihar,but for less than a year. He was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991 as a Janata Dal candidate. His second Lok Sabha stint came much later,in 2009,this time under the JD(U). Today,he is the leader of the JD(U) parliamentary party in the Lok Sabha.

Das,who attends the Lok Sabha every day when it is in session,suddenly perks up during a conversation about the level of discourse in Parliament. “I go to the House,see the condition and just come back. I feel very sad,” he says. “What is the ruling party doing? But then,what can it do? There are so many parties in the government,so many in the Opposition,” he says.

One of his aides takes over: “He feels deeply saddened by the falling standards of the Lok Sabha and politics in general. He says people’s money is being wasted.” Das wants to know what the aide had just said and asks him to repeat it—“loudly”,he orders.

As he sits comfortably on a couch at his home in Delhi’s Canning Lane,he plays the indulgent elder,offering tea and biscuits to visitors.

“I don’t have anything to say today. I am not even wearing my topi (cap). I wear it everyday…There are about two or three leaders left who wear topis…,” he says,his voice trailing off.

Kailash Joshi,84

BJP MP from Bhopal,Madhya Pradesh

Dressed in a crisp white dhoti-kurta and a pair of white slippers,Joshi looks every bit the seasoned politician. He plays the part too—choosing his words carefully as he talks about his politics,his “mentor” Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the “piece of wisdom” the former PM gave him several decades ago.

“In the 1950s,I was campaigning in Madhya Pradesh for a BJP candidate in the municipal elections. Atalji had also come. He sat through my entire speech. Later he told me that I have great oratory skills,but I should read more and do a lot of research. This,he told me,will make my political journey more meaningful and fulfilling,” Joshi recounts.

It was an advice,he says,that stayed with him. The bookshelf in the sparsely furnished living room of his house on BD Marg in New Delhi is lined with books on parliamentary proceedings and procedures,economy and literature.

Joshi joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951,the year it was formed. His electoral career began in 1955 when he won the municipal president’s election. He won his first Assembly election in 1962 from Bagli,a seat he represented for eight terms. In 2000,he was elected to the Rajya Sabha,and in 2004,he won his debut Lok Sabha election from Bhopal. He won again in 2009 and now looks forward to contesting “one more election”.

Joshi proudly says his “entire family is with the BJP” and that his son is a party MLA in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly. But before you suggest dynastic politics,he says,“See,there are two kinds of youth leaders—those who do their homework and perform well,and those who rarely come to the House. Unfortunately,Rahul Gandhi does not come to the House much or raise any issues,” he says.

M Hashim Kidwai,92

Priyanka Kotamraju

At 9.30 am every morning,92-year old Hashim Kidwai makes his way from his home in Mayur Vihar to Parliament. Clad in a bandhgala,Nehru topi perched on top,four pens fastened to his front pocket,and accompanied by his weathered black bag,in which he keeps his letterhead and his published and unpublished letters to editors,Kidwai spends the next few hours till lunch time reading papers,dealing with correspondence,discussing politics with his MP friends and sometimes,watching the proceedings from the Distinguished Visitors gallery. Since 1984,when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh for a six-year term,Kidwai’s routine has changed little,whether Parliament has been in session or not.

Kidwai has remained a student of politics throughout his life. While his father Abdul Majeed was deputy collector in British India,Kidwai was an active participant in the freedom struggle. “I was a class V student in Saharanpur when I started attending meetings of the Civil Disobedience Movement. In 1931,when Bhagat Singh was executed,10-15 of us protested outside our school,” says Kidwai. Despite repeated warnings from their headmaster and teachers,Kidwai and his friends stood their ground. All of them failed that year. His political activism continued at Lucknow University where he was a BA student. “In 1936,the All India Students’ Federation was started; its first session inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru and presided over by Jinnah. Later,I became its general secretary for years,” he says,adding that it was during his MA that he joined the Quit India Movement. Despite his participation in the freedom struggle,Kidwai was never arrested,which he cites as an example of the British divide-and-rule strategy.

It was in 1946,when he was an active member of the Congress,that he met Muslim nationalist Rafi Ahmad Kidwai who was to later become his mentor. For 34 years till his retirement in 1982,Hashim Kidwai taught political science at Aligarh Muslim University. In the 1950s,he formed the Aligarh chapter of the Youth Congress.

In 1984,he was elected to the Rajya Sabha with the Congress’s backing. “I spoke about communal harmony and problems in our education system.” When his six-year term drew to a close in 1990,then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi promised him a second term. “Circumstances took a very different turn then,as you know,but I’ve been waiting,” he says. On contemporary politics,Kidwai,who is “still very much a Congressman”,says the Congress hasn’t been aggressive in pushing policy or reforms,“they’ve done little or nothing”. But he predicts it will still be the single largest party in the next elections. “The BJP has no chance”.

Sukhdev Singh Libra,81

Congress MP from Fatehgarh Sahib,Punjab

In 2008,when the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) decided to vote against the UPA on the nuclear deal,what they didn’t bargain for was that a not-so-young debutant MP would stand up to question the party. “The party first decided to vote in favour of the deal but then turned against it. I,however,stuck to my stand. I believed the deal was important,” he says. And so,he quit the SAD and joined the Congress.

Libra won his first Assembly election in 1985,at the height of the insurgency in Punjab,on an SAD ticket. After a Rajya Sabha stint,he was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004 but resigned over the nuclear deal. In 2009,he won his second term,but this time on a Congress ticket. He has been a member of several committees and has held other important public positions.

Libra believes politics has to strike the right balance between age and experience. “The youth are very important. But they just need to be trained a bit and that’s where we come in,” he says.

He knows where his goalposts are: “I will fight the next election too if my party gives me a ticket.”

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