On days that Parliament would be sitting late, I would come out of the media room and watch the beautifully lit circular building, a sight that always filled me with wonder — that this iconic structure should represent the will of a billion-plus people. It would be my goosebump moment.
There are so many things that come to mind when I look back at all those years when I wrote about Parliament and, as a media person, witnessed the political and legislative process at play inside it.
As iconic as the building, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker and completed in 1927, is the Central Hall, with life-size portraits of India’s leaders, freedom fighters and former prime ministers looking down.
It was here, on the midnight of August 14-15, that Gujarat educationist Hansa Mehta presented the Indian flag to Rajendra Prasad, chairman of the Constituent Assembly. “It is in the fitness of things,” she told him, “that the first flag flying over this august house should be a gift from the women of India.”
It was here that Jawaharlal Nehru spoke his famous words that midnight, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge…,”
It was here that Sonia Gandhi, Nehru’s grand daughter-in-law and Congress president, decided to heed her “inner voice” and not take up the country’s prime ministership which was within her grasp in 2004.
It was here that the NDA government rolled out the GST, what it called the “biggest tax reform in the country”, at a midnight ceremony on June 30, 2017.
And it was here that Narendra Modi, while attending the best parliamentarian awards function in 2018, reminded MPs that “Parliament is a forum to debate and even criticise the government”.
It’s here that MPs sit and chat, corner the minister and get the work done of their constituents. As someone once said, “It is the biggest eatery and gossipry in town.” It’s also where media persons like to hang out.
The Central Hall of Parliament, above all, is about holding conversations. MPs across parties affiliations would mount blistering attacks against each other while in the House, before coming to Central Hall and sitting together over coffee and toast.
This is often where problems got sorted out between the government side and the Opposition, and impasse gave way to dialogue, though this has been getting less frequent over the years.
I remember the late Pramod Mahajan, then parliamentary affairs minister in the Vajpayee regime, accosting Opposition leaders who had for days stalled the Houses with a warm “achha, ab batao, asal mein kya chahiye, us par baat karein, shor to kaafi ho gaya (ok, let’s talk about the problem, there has been enough noise).”
During the UPA rule, Prithviraj Chavan, MoS in the Prime Minister’s Office, was able to have a quiet word here with Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, leaders of Opposition in the two Houses, and get a consensus on the tricky nuclear liability Bill.
In 1989, many will remember the sight of a red-faced Chandrashekhar sitting in a corner of Central Hall, after being “duped” about who would become Prime Minister. He thought Devi Lal would be the man but it was V P Singh, who was elected at the parliamentary party meeting held there, who went on to replace Rajiv Gandhi as PM.
Arun Jaitley’s addas in Central Hall were very popular, more so after Modi came to power because many of the other ministers had stopped informal chat sessions with the media. An “understood” convention of Central Hall is that whatever is spoken there is “off the record”, unless stated otherwise.
The 1999 cliffhanger of a trust vote that Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost — by one vote — in 1999 will be remembered as much for the intense debate that followed in Central Hall on which one vote could have made the difference.
All of these come to mind as the Prime Minister lays the foundation of a new Parliament building which is expected to come up by 2022. It will be bigger, and more modern. It will have 888 seats in the Lok Sabha, with an option to increase it to 1,224.
Structural considerations and space constraints are important factors for a new building. But in this day of innovation and modern technology, could they have not been addressed? Couldn’t an expansion have been undertaken to meet the need for more offices, without giving up on the present building and converting it into a museum? After all, the Annexe building and the Library building were added as extensions for precisely the same reason.
You see MPs squished together in the British parliament; they could certainly do with more space. There is a plan to restore the decaying Palace of Westminster, but not to replace it.
For, Parliament is a building steeped in history, memories, and a democratic legacy which can never be replaced. While icons keep a nation’s spirit alive, it is iconic structures such as Parliament that help give the nation its identity and connect the present to the past, giving it a direction to move more confidently towards the future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 20, 2020 under the title “Of addas in Central Hall, and a dour Chandrashekhar.” The writer, a senior journalist, was former Political Editor, The Indian Express.
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