It is commonplace for Indian parliamentary television channels to broadcast unparliamentary protest. (Express photo by Jaipal Singh/Representational photo)
Paradoxically, there is nothing like a reversal of fortunes to calm the nerves and, as Congreve put it, to “soothe the savage breast”. Just weeks after BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra was pushing the envelope of decency in debate, he was blindsided by his own high command, which referred to him as Sandeep. And then he was sandbagged by the state election results. It was surreal to see him on channels like ABP News, mild-mannered and waiting for his turn to speak. One wistfully recalls him in peak form, on the day votes were being counted in the last general election, when he had yelled: “Hamara sher daharhta hua ghoom raha hai (Our lion is roaring, and he’s on the loose).”
Another general election looms, of course, and the success of the Congress in the states will not necessarily be repeated at the national level. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that these elections have been a rite of passage for Rahul Gandhi, who has shown himself to be mature, reasonable and accessible, rare qualities these days. The end of Pappudom also signals the end of the politics of vilification that his family has suffered, and which has been amplified by television and internet media, as if they were reporting a WWF bout rather than national politics. By the way, if you want to see a relic of the prizefighting era, please search for the online clip of the ‘debate’ on Zee TV between Anurag Bhadauria of the Samajwadi Party and Gaurav Bhatia of the BJP. The refrain is: “Aa ja be…”
Change is in the air on air, too, as one sees the North Korean and Commando comics channels essay a pivot and achieve a pirouette, as the compass rose shows no clear direction. In comparison, committed channels like Republic TV come across with more dignity. Their initial responses to the election results: the Congress barely made it in two states while it is wiped out in the Northeast, as Mizoram goes to an NDA ally. And the big question is whether the BJP can somehow take back Madhya Pradesh. It was bizarre nonsense, but there is a strange kind of dignity in this, such as that which is enjoyed by boys who habitually stand on burning decks. The opportunistic channels don’t even have that.
Another election is due in our neighbourhood, and Reuters have a sobering story from Dhaka about the new Digital Security Act (DSA) brought in by Sheikh Hasina’s government, which “has spread a climate of fear in the [media] industry.” While Bangladesh has been admired for welcoming Rohingya refugees (in sharp contrast to peevish India), its attitude to freedom of speech has not got much attention, except in the context of the arrest of the activist photographer Shahidul Alam in August. While the DSA’s precursor, the Information and Communications Technology Act, allowed summary arrest on allegations of defamation, the DSA totally cripples investigative journalism. Merely acquiring information or papers from the government without official consent is now a crime, warrants are not required for arrest and bail is not a right. It follows that it is now impossible to report credibly on corruption and the abuse of power. Journalists concerned that they would not be able to report the forthcoming elections properly have taken to the streets.
India may have a Constitution based on the Westminster model, but attitudes in the two countries have diverged on the propriety of protest in the House. It is commonplace for Indian parliamentary television channels to broadcast unparliamentary protest, showing images of members holding up banners, storming the well and flinging papers about to disrupt the business of the House. Meanwhile, the Chair shouts, “Nothing shall go on record!” Quite ineffectually, because the footage itself is the most reliable record.
But a recent protest in the UK parliament reveals that the British are less tolerant in affairs of state — or perhaps less disorganised— than we are. The TV cameras in the House are not permitted to broadcast images of protest. We know this because a representative of the BBC tweeted out a video of the one-man uprising led by Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who picked up the mace and stalked off with it in protest against delays in the Brexit affair. He didn’t get far with it, since he was apprehended by a guard wearing a whacking great sword. But it was a symbolically potent act. In the House, the five-foot gilt mace represents the authority of the Queen of England, and no business can go forth if it is off the table. This is not the first time that the mace has been hijacked in protest against some perceived democratic deficiency. But this is definitely the first time that the world has seen it as it happened.