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Some seen, some hidden: Landmark moments in old Parliament's history

If the walls of Parliament could speak they would reveal the many events in the House - some seen, some hidden; much heard, but much left unsaid

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The new Parliament building (left) lacks a Central Hall as we know it. But the spirit of democracy will endure

Aditi Phadnis New Delhi
Even as India bids farewell to the old Parliament building and prepares to enter a new one, it is challenging to comprehensively recount all that these walls must have witnessed. So much transpires in Parliament — some seen, some unseen; a lot heard, yet much unheard...

Consider, for instance, the speeches.

Prime Ministers (PMs) who have had to resign from office (as opposed to completing their term and seeking re-election) would typically pour their heart into their final speech as PM. These speeches rank among the best Parliament has ever heard, often so captivating that Opposition members rarely interrupt them.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s speech during the no-confidence motion after his 14-day government in 1996, which everyone knew could not survive, began as a defence of the government. Many had predicted that ‘secret’ allies would come to its rescue. His speech gave no hint of his intentions. It contained numerous jibes aimed at the Opposition, which had united solely to defeat him.

Vajpayee declared, “Today, I have been accused of lusting after power and doing whatever it takes to be in power... But I have been in power before, and I have never done anything immoral for power. If breaking up political parties is the only way to form a coalition that stays in power, then I do not want to touch such a coalition with a bargepole.”

He concluded his speech with the words, “Adhyaksh Mahodaya mein apna tyagpatra Rashtrapati ko dene ja raha hoon.”

Chandra Shekhar (1990-91) displayed the courage to form a government with only 50 Members of Parliament (MPs) and external support from the Congress. In his speech at the end of the no-confidence motion that brought down his government, he said, “I do not want to make any grandiose claims. I understand the limitations of this government. But I assure you, my friend Advaniji, you have known me for quite some time. I can be many things, but I cannot be a puppet. I have not met a person who can use me like a puppet. I have dealt with much more influential figures in this country. If, until now, I have not been reduced to a puppet, with your blessings and support, rest assured that no one will use me as a puppet in the future.”

Veteran observers recall the first and perhaps only time when reporters entered the Well of the House (which in recent years has been stormed routinely). This incident took place in 1978 when Ashok Tandon, who would later become press advisor to Vajpayee, was a reporter with Press Trust of India. Indira Gandhi had been ousted as PM several months earlier but had returned to the Lok Sabha (LS) through a by-election.

The Janata Party was determined to settle scores, leading to the formation of a privileges committee. In its extensive 1,007-page, two-volume report, the committee found Mrs Gandhi guilty of breaching privilege and showing contempt for the LS by obstructing four government officials from gathering information for a question on Maruti, raised by Jyotirmoy Bosu in 1975. The report left the decision of punishment to the “collective wisdom” of the House.

The House voted to expel Mrs Gandhi from the LS and sentenced her to jail. Tandon recalls that after the punishment was announced, chaos erupted in the House. Remarkably, reporters in the gallery noticed Mrs Gandhi gesturing for them to come down. They hurried down the stairs, past the lobby doors and marshals, and astonishingly, entered the Well of the House, where Mrs Gandhi held an impromptu press conference.

This unprecedented event has never occurred in history and is unlikely to ever happen again.

The New York Times (NYT) reported what Mrs Gandhi said: “It is abundantly clear that the punishment is not based on the facts of the case but on past grievances.”

The NYT also noted: “Before she left, she wrote out the words of what she described as an old English song, and one of her supporters read it to the crowd: Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye; Cheerio, here I go, on my way. Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye; Not a tear, but a cheer, make it gay. Give me a smile I can keep all the while; In my heart while I'm away.”

In 1993, the LS transformed into a court of law, marking the first time a Judge was ‘tried’ on the floor of the House. Justice V Ramaswami, a Punjab and Haryana High Court judge who later became a Supreme Court Justice, faced corruption charges. The matter jumped through many legal hoops before landing in Parliament for a decision.

Kapil Sibal, now an MP, was appointed as his lawyer and defended Ramaswami for five hours in the LS. The LS Visitors Gallery and Media Gallery were filled to capacity, and Sibal was the sole lawyer to address Parliament in that capacity.

Nevertheless, there is a lighter side to Parliament, one that isn’t all about solemnity and pomp.

Another old-timer shared an amusing incident. The Media Gallery in the LS is adjacent to the Speaker’s Chair. On a sweltering May afternoon, while speakers droned on about various topics, reporters upstairs were sharing some photographs of... um... adult content. Mid-exchange, some pictures slipped from their hands and landed on the Speaker’s table. The Speaker at the time was Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, a stern taskmaster who never appeared in public without a meticulously applied naamam (tilak).

Expecting imminent dismissal, the two despondent reporters positioned themselves outside the Speaker’s room, awaiting their fate. When Ayyangar summoned them in, he was reviewing the incriminating material. After asking them a few questions, he advised them to focus on their work in the future.

The new Parliament lacks a Central Hall as we know it, and there is no risk of anything falling on the Speaker’s table. But the spirit of democracy will endure, even if the new House will not be home to many.

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First Published: Sep 18 2023 | 8:09 PM IST

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