Rajya Sabha in Retrospect, Democracy in Prospect

In-Depth Interview Part 1/3: Experiences in the Rajya Sabha, Concerns for the Status of Indian Democracy

(Image Source – Sansad TV)

On 2nd April 2024, renowned journalist, writer and Indian National Congress leader Kumar Ketkar retired from the Rajya Sabha. Before the formal retirement, on the concluding day of the last session of the Parliament, at the farewell of retiring Rajya Sabha members he gave a speech. His 3-minute speech, filled with concern for current status and future of Indian democracy caused ripples not only in the house, but in the media too, and it definitely planted a seed of thought in the minds of all who listened. 

Kartavya-Sadhana sought to shed some light on his experience in the Rajya Sabha and his views regarding the ongoing Lok Sabha Elections. We sent him a set of questions over the email and he answered them in the same mode. We are happy to present the first half of the insightful discussion with the Congressman to you today, which focuses on recalling his impressions from his tenure in Rajyasabha and his opinions about political scenario ahead of the Elections.

Question - You recently retired from the Rajya Sabha.  In your farewell speech, you explicitly voiced out concerns about the unprecedented level of political polarization of the Parliament houses. Your speech was a remarkable finale to your tenure. How did you exactly feel after completion of your tenure that day?

Answer - My Rajya Sabha term began on April 3, 2018 and was over on April 2, 2024, after completing the scheduled six years. In effect, I became the Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) about a year before the Lok Sabha Elections in 2019 and leaving the House just a month before the 2024 elections. A lot of things have changed, actually degenerated, during these six years. 

I had the opportunity to see the decline and fall of the Delhi Establishment from the vantage position from the Raisina Hills power centre, well, before it is renamed “Hastinapur” or may be “Indraprastha” and, before “Bharat” becomes formally Hindu Rashtra! De facto, it is already Hindu Rashtra. However, the 2024 elections are unlikely to give absolute Majority to the Modi Regime, and hence de jure Hindu Rashtra may not emerge! So perhaps the name Delhi may survive, though its Gandhian spirit and Nehruvian ethos has already been miserably weakened.

My six years in the Rajya Sabha were lacklustre but the politics in the country was on roller-coaster. The turbulence outside reflected in the pandemonium and chaos in both the Houses. By and large most parliamentary practises and internal democratic traditions were trampled upon. I had covered parliament as a journalist in the past, for brief periods. But I had seen eloquent debates, discussions about serious challenges before the country, and of course, the argumentative Indians (the MPs) playing out the parliamentary drama. It used to be at once interesting and reaffirming faith in parliamentary democracy.

So, when I took oath as a Member of the Rajya Sabha, I had visualised glorious time as an MP. However, I can say now that in the six years that I was there, I experienced nothing enriching, nothing enlightening, nothing inspiring. Indeed, my faith in the parliamentary democracy began to diminish. There is hardly anything I can remember that I should cherish.

Question – Could you elaborate on the difference between your experiences in the Rajya Sabha as a member of the media and as the member of the Parliament?

Answer - I had seen from the press gallery, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee, Dr Manmohan Singh, sitting in the House for long hours, giving answers and explanations to Opposition or making major statements. There was some dignity, decorum and decency.

Narendra Modi came to Rajya Sabha, even Lok Sabha very, very few times. His speeches were long, rhetorical and most often condemning the Nehru, Indira or Rajiv’s governments. Very little or nothing about the current issues and conflicts— farmers up in arms to civil war in Manipur. I don’t remember a single speech by him which enlivened the House or raised the stature of Parliament. And yet the ruling BJP or NDA members would applaud and thump benches at every sentence, every word, every gesture of his, boosting his ego. Often, they loudly chanted “Modi, Modi, Modi,” in the House, thereby creating an atmosphere of din and disturbance. Any worthwhile debate or discussion is impossible in such noisy conditions.

Question – Let’s circle back your farewell speech. It was short but poignant. It was full of concern for House polarization and Indian democracy. Was it a conscious decision to make such a frank expression?

Answer - Farewell speeches of the retiring Rajya Sabha members is a long tradition. It is supposed to be a poignant event. Every two years, about 50 to 60 members complete their six-year tenure. I had witnessed two such farewell events in the House, in 2020 and second in 2022. Each time my experience was disappointing.

Out of little over 250 Rajya Sabha members, not more than 50 to 60 members remain present for this sensitive session. Some of them are there because they have to deliver their last speech. The others are there either because they are friends or close colleagues of the retiring members. Overall mood in the session is just dry, almost emotionless.

At the beginning of my tenure I had thought (perhaps because I was a journalist before) that I would be able to listen to some interesting experiences, some nostalgic moments and some wonderful anecdotes. But on both occasions in 2020 and 2022, my expectations proved to be miserably misplaced. So, I was not greatly hopeful that my farewell session would be any different.

Everybody gets just about 2 to 3 minutes to make their observation. Those retiring from the BJP had spoken less about their experiences and mostly about how great “Modi Ji” has been during their tenure. Some even brought, totally out of context, references of Pandit Nehru or Indira Gandhi and how they ruined our economy, polity and progress; but how “Modi Ji” has made history, given vision to the nation and provided exemplary leadership to the whole world, not only India. Nothing about their life in Rajya Sabha for six years. 

Therefore, I decided, that I will use that two-minute span I was given for being candid. I began by stating that my experience in the Rajya Sabha was not at all inspiring. There were no enlightened debates or enriching discussions. In fact, most of the time I saw and heard hatred for the Nehrus. Nehru’s pioneering role in building modern India and Indira Gandhi’s historic act of helping liberate Bangladesh, were not only ridiculed, but used to promote Hindu-Muslim communal tension. The House was polarised and that was great disservice to the nation. The glory of India’s parliamentary democracy was undermined. That was the crux (not exact words) of my farewell speech. It was a frontal attack and no other member, even in the Congress had taken such an outspoken position. No wonder that speech instantly went viral.

(Video Source – Sansad TV youtube channel)

Question – Did you think such a bold step would bear some unwanted consequences for you?

Answer - The drumbeats of the Lok Sabha Elections for 2024 had began rolling. Rajya Sabha is a permanent institution. It never gets dissolved. Members are appointed for 6 years at the interval of every 2 years. New members entering and old members retiring is a cyclic process, the house remains statutory.

The Lok Sabha members began to express anxiety, apprehensions and even anger with their respective parties. Not sure of getting the party ticket, and then not sure of winning even if the ticket was managed and not sure of raising adequate funds. These feeling were most pronounced among the BJP MPs. 

Most central ministers were asked to contest for Lok Sabha, even if they were members of the Rajya Sabha. Piyush Goyal was asked to fight from Mumbai. Nirmala Sitharaman from Chennai. (But she smartly refused to fall in the trap). Many BJP MPs are quite fed up with Narendra Modi and his abrasive and arrogant style of functioning. None is sure of his/her political fate.

For me the issue was simple. I belonged to the Congress. The party is not in power. I was neither seeking second term to Rajya Sabha nor did I aspire for Lok Sabha ticket.  As a journalist, I had quite often taken a position against some Congress policies or ministers, in state or at Centre. However, I was dedicated to Nehruvian line of politics and an abashed supporter of Indira Gandhi, even when the entire media (and even many congress leaders) were against her. So, the tensions that the BJP MPs had to live with, were not going to affect me. So, I spoke my mind.

Question - The Session of the Parliament just concluded and the ballyhoo for the Lok Sabha Elections has begun in full gear. Your tenure as a Member of the Parliament is complete, but you are still a member of the Congress Party. What responsibilities has the party leadership entrusted you with? Where have you been for the canvassing campaign?

Answer - I campaigned in Vidarbha, in the first phase of elections in Maharashtra. I could clearly see tremendous hostility towards Modi government, towards Narendra Modi personally and towards the BJP’s shameless skullduggery, brazen blackmailing and arrogance of power in Maharashtra. Nobody can predict election results, particularly these days when even the Supreme Court has succumbed to the pressures of the Executive and not stopped the notorious and dubious use of the Electronic Voting Machines (the EVMs). But I can foresee a huge, perhaps humiliating setback to the BJP, to Modi personally and to the Mahayuti in Maharashtra.

Question - Wherever you go, people must talk to you about BJP. What opinions do you hear from their supporters, their opponents and the neutral ones?

Answer - The BJP under Modi’s aggressive, blatantly communal, full of hate and creating wild illusions of hope, style leadership did bring to the BJP clear majority with 282 seats (though with only 31 percent votes) in 2014. But that victory, first in last thirty years when any opposition received such mandate, went to head and their audacity saw no bounds. Modi became a personification of undemocratic, no holds barred autocratic style of governance. 

The hubris was of such magnitude that even many stalwarts in the opposition fell for the Evil charm of Modi. With his equally arrogant and uncultured colleague, Amit Shah, the government virtually went berserk, particularly after the unnatural victory in 2019. Why I call it unnatural because it was usurped on the issue of the Pulwama killing of our jawans and the so called surgical strike on Balakot. 

So far, the government has not come out clean on all the facts related to Pulwama and Balakot. No white paper, nor detailed statement of the tragedy. But the party, Modi and Shah in particular, hyped the event so much that the gullible sections of the electorate gave 303 seats to the Modi regime. (Even then the party received only 37 percent vote). However, the intoxicated brouhaha gave them a feeling of invincibility, and to Modi, an image of Superman. 

It was against this outsized canvas of spectacular image, that the Modi government abrogated Article 370. One saw with that abrogation, an unprecedented wave of hyper nationalism. After that the Modi government carried on their divisive agenda. The laws related to citizenship, (CAA, NRC) further heightened the anti-Muslim sentiment, giving rise to the conviction that the Constitution would be changed if the Modi government gets majority mandate, and the Hindu Rashtra would be formally announced. This communal anaesthesia was part of the mass psyche. 

Question – Do you believe this communal anaesthesia is still prevalent, or is its effect receding?

Answer - About a year ago, the anaesthetic coma began to evaporate slowly. Rahul Gandhi’s two padayatras, covering over 10,000 kilometres had contributed to this awakening. But the inflation, massive unemployment and collapse of social order have shocked the masses into consciousness.  The people have belatedly begun to realise the vacuousness of the Hindutva pride and the communal trap of Hindu-Muslim divide. I was able to see the mass hypnosis brought by Modi, in the years before 2014, was able to witness the anaesthetic unconsciousness after 2019, and for the past nearly two years, I am clearly seeing the awakening of the masses.

- Kumar Ketkar 
Renowned Journalist, Political Writer, Former Rajya Sabha Member (2018-2024)

Interviewer - Vinod Shirsath (Editor, Sadhana & Kartavya)

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Anup Priolkar

Nice to read your experience of great house of India's parliament

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