Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

What Parliament taught me about the value of laughter

Fali S Nariman writes: Disarm your opponent with humour and faint praise, and never attack them with anger or derision

It is always advisable to scotch your opponent with faint praise. (File)

I would like to congratulate this newspaper on The Ideas Page on August 10. Both ‘Notes from the House’ by Liz Mathew and ‘Why Nitish worries BJP’ by Ghanshyam Tiwari were wonderfully nostalgic and excellently expressed. They have helped stimulate my own memories of the (now) old Parliament building — when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, and Nitish Kumar was Union Minister for Railways (from March 2001 – May 2004). Although then Prime Minister Vajpayee always spoke in Hindi it was, for me, easily understandable Hindi and I vividly recall one such occasion mentioned below.

It is customary that when a Prime Minister of India returns from a foreign visit, the first thing he or she does is make a statement in each of the Houses of Parliament (if in session), and MPs, picked by the Chair, are customarily asked to put questions to the Prime Minister so that further information can be elicited.

On one such occasion, I, as a nominated member, was one of the fortunate few to be named by the Chair, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, along with two members belonging to different political parties. One of these two members posed his questions, and I too put a couple of questions to the Prime Minister who was sitting in his allotted seat in the House. The third MP was a former diplomat-turned-parliamentarian, the distinguished K Natwar Singh. He belonged at the time to the Congress Party, which was then in Opposition and his questions were very critical of the government and full of some invective as well.

Natwar Singh spoke in crisp English: “Mr Chairman Sir, I have six questions for the Prime Minister”, he forcefully began. And he set them out one by one. While raising each question, he raised his voice as well. A decibel louder, and each time, angrier than when he had asked the previous question! When the Prime Minister rose to answer the questions, and, ultimately, came to the six questions posed by Natwar Singh, I was left wondering how he would deal with the pointed and somewhat inconvenient questions addressed to him.

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But the Prime Minister — who spoke in fluent but understandable Hindi (even to the angrezi wallahs!) in response to the questions addressed to him in English said that Natwar Singh was a great parliamentarian and that he (Vajpayee) had known him for many years. He noted that the Congress MP was very intelligent as well and always knew his facts. He then added: “Lekin unko gussa bahut jaldi aa jataa hai” (he gets angry very quickly). That riposte brought the House down. The six questions remained unanswered because they got dissolved in laughter! And there was much laughter in the House in those days, from 1999 to 2005.

Atalji was an astute statesman to his fingertips. Courageous when required, diplomatic when necessary. He taught me a great lesson — that it pays not to be angry or to lose one’s temper when speaking in Parliament. It is always advisable to scotch your opponent with faint praise.

This is one of the things I learnt in my six-year sojourn in Parliament — to disarm your opponent, and never attack them with anger or derision. And I am eternally grateful to Atalji — who had a boyish and lovable sense of fun — for having taught his colleagues in the House that they are better appreciated when expressing their sense of joy rather than indulging in a sense of humour at some other Member’s expense.


The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior advocate to the Supreme Court

First published on: 13-08-2022 at 04:00:42 am
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