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How BJP Just Gave ‘Special’ the Wrong Meaning

Suhit K Sen |
Majoritarian provocation is woven into the texture of the ruling party’s politics; all that occurred during the special session of Parliament proves it.
Parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha during a special session of the Parliament, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. (PTI Photo)

Parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha during a special session of the Parliament, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Image Courtesy: PTI

The ‘special session’ of Parliament held last week was truly special, but for all the wrong reasons. The auguries themselves were bad: the decision was taken without consultations or any apparent reason and the agenda was under wraps until the last moment.

The first thing that soured the already impugned session was the conditional passage of the law to reserve seats in Parliament and State assemblies for women, which showed clearly that the government had no real interest in ensuring reservations kicked in fast, but only in trying to make political mileage. Any government, party or bloc wants to make mileage. But only when that calculation is accompanied by delivery.

But that was small beer compared to what came next, in the limited sense of the first at least being procedurally correct. Chronologically, that was preceded by the distribution of a copy of the Constitution, to mark the inauguration of the new Parliament building, the ‘Modi Multiplex’, in which the words ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ were missing from the Preamble. The justification, that this was a copy of the original Constitution, without the 127 amendments that had been made, is worse than infantile. The purpose clearly was to mark the occasion with a statement: that the current regime wants to erase the socialist and secular traditions of the republic.

Last, on 22 September, came Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) South Delhi MP Ramesh Bidhuri’s shameful and criminal attack against Bahujan Samaj Party Kunwar Danish Ali on the floor of the Lok Sabha in which religious slurs were cast, apart from language employed that would invite ejection from most public places.

To begin with, the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, or the 128th amendment to the Constitution, which was passed by both houses of Parliament to reserve 33% of seats for women in legislatures, is just a promissory note, contingent on two critical factors: the delimitation process frozen until 2026 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of 1999-2004; and the completion of the decennial census due in 2021.

Neither of these conditions make sense. There is no clarity on when delimitation will actually happen, beyond that it won’t start before 2026. The process is bound to be long-drawn-out and fractious given, for example, that any attempt to make simple arithmetical calculations in deciding representational ratios is bound to be contested, correctly and legitimately, by states that have successfully contained population growth.

There is the likelihood of a South-North divide, since simple arithmetic will punish the South, which has by and large successfully implemented family-planning programmes, and reward the Hindi heartland, which has not. There will also be a clash between regional parties and the BJP, which thrives on heartland support because its political strategies and idioms, which cater to some of the most primitivist of cultural and ideological preferences.

The decennial census has been kept in suspended inanimation by this government for no conceivable, credible or comprehensible reason. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many events have occurred that require mass participation—Assembly, panchayat and municipal elections, but also religious events entailing massive congregations. Conducting the census does not entail mass gatherings. Its suspension is a political ploy of a regime that thrives on statistical grey areas, which facilitate its tactic of lying all the time.

It is this underhandedness that was evident in the distribution of the Constitution to Member of Parliament on 19 September in its ‘original’ form, minus the words secular and socialist that were added to the Preamble through the 42nd amendment. Though the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Congress Member of Parliament Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, tried to highlight the issue, it did not get much traction, possibly because of attention subsequently being focused on the women’s reservation bill, which was introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha on 20 September.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s great commitment to the vanity project of building a new complex to house Parliament, with all the trappings of a seven-star hotel, does not seem compatible with harking back to the past. Under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, it has been argued, distributing inaccurate versions of India’s map, inter alia, is punishable, so, we cannot distribute copies of the Indian map as it looked in 1950. Why should the Constitution be different?

On the final day of the session came Bidhuri’s unpunished vituperation. His comments have been expunged from the record—that is it. What he did was indulge in hate speech, unequivocally punishable under sections 153A and 153B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and perhaps some other sections as well, section 295A, for instance. He has now been given a key poll duty by his party in Rajasthan’s Tonk district, a Muslim-Gujjar belt said to be a zone where Sachin Pilot of the Congress party carries influence.

The first thing that must happen, if a shred of credibility is to attach to parliamentary procedure, Parliament itself and, thus, parliamentary democracy, is that Bidhuri must be suspended from the house until the term of this Parliament ends, possibly in May-June 2024. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha have suspended people for much less. In fact, sometimes for no perceptible reason.

Bidhuri would likely have been behind bars if this offence had been committed in a public place, but the fact that it happened in the Lok Sabha gives him the immunity of parliamentary privilege. When it comes to the use of uncouth language and sexist, racist, communitarian abuse, tantamount to hate speech, Bidhuri is a recidivist. But does parliamentary privilege protect him from prosecution in such a cut-and-dried case? The CPI(M) has called for his arrest, arguing it does not.

Most people who value democracy and the pluralistic society we still miraculously have, though distinctly frayed at the edges, would agree without any hesitation. Unfortunately, the balance of legal opinion tends to the view that parliamentary privileges are absolute.

Thus, on Speaker Om Birla shoulders rests the responsibility of acting against this repeat offender and disgrace to Parliament. He has not yet made any move to suspend him. All that Bidhuri has merited till now is a caution.

It is unlikely that the BJP will take any action. It has issued a show-cause notice to the offender. But we have been there before. Any number of party leaders have indulged in hate speech with impunity. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Singh Thakur was actually rewarded with a promotion from junior minister to Cabinet rank. Only a few—party spokesperson Nupur Sharma was suspended and Delhi unit media chief Naveen Jindal expelled in 2002—have been punished. In both cases, immediately, so don’t hold your breath for action against Bidhuri.

We have to get this. There is no fringe-mainstream dichotomy in the BJP. The distinction is between the loose cannons and the puppeteers. And even the master puppeteers, Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, indulge in hate speech when it’s exigent, because that majoritarian provocation is woven into the texture of their politics.

The author is an independent journalist and writer. The views are personal.

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