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View: India needs a modern Parliament, but not at cost of its majestic past

In the 72 years as an independent nation, the importance and sacredness of Parliament has never been in any doubt. No doubt the institution itself has contributed to this veneration. Yet, in a country where moorti puja is widespread, it would not ...

Updated: Nov 17, 2019, 11.19 AM IST
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There is a compelling case for rationalising and upgrading the facilities of Parliament House, says Swapan Dasgupta.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered Parliament in May 2014 as a first-term MP and Prime Minister, he fell on his feet and touched the steps with his forehead. It was a gesture that is normally reserved for devout worshippers as they enter a house of God.

The Prime Minister’s gesture may have seemed showy but it was not inappropriate. For those in public life and committed to democracy, Parliament is the ultimate destination. From here roads can further lead to a ministership or even prime ministership, but it has to start from this centre of law-making.

Indians have mixed feelings about our past as a subject nation. There are aspects of British rule that have distorted the country’s self-esteem and public institutions. We have tried — sometimes unsuccessfully — to leave the past behind us and start afresh, with mixed results. It will probably take a century of self-rule before we can truly assess, to quote Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech at the midnight hours in 1947, how much we have “redeem(ed) our pledge in full” and made “all the people of India what destiny intended them to be”.

In the 72 years as an independent nation, the importance and sacredness of Parliament has never been in any doubt. No doubt the institution itself has contributed to this veneration. Yet, in a country where moorti puja is widespread, it would not be wrong to suggest that the sheer splendour of Parliament House has been an important factor.

The iconic circular building designed by Sir Herbert Baker may have been conceived by the imperial rulers as a showpiece of consultation, as opposed to decision-making. However, this decorative status lasted for a mere 19 years — from the sitting of the Indian Legislative Council in 1927 to the convening of the Constituent Assembly in 1946. For much of its existence, the three chambers of Parliament House — the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and Central Hall — have witnessed the making of independent India.

Apart from the colourful wooden plaques denoting the various princely states that hang on the walls of the Reading Room — formerly the Chamber of Princes — there is precious little in Parliament House to suggest an imperial provenance.

This is why it comes as a surprise to learn that there are plans — although still at a consultation stage — to shift the legislatures to a new Parliament building, located where the present car parks are situated. The existing Parliament House, a heritage building, will stand but will become a museum.

The rationale for this grand re-working is ground in practicalities. The present Parliament House, it is rightly said, doesn’t have working spaces for all the backbench MPs. Additionally, some of the modern communication facilities, so necessary in today’s connected world, are lacking inside Parliament House. I guess our modern planners have also been inspired by the generous facilities and the modern ambiance of the European Parliament in Brussels and the new Parliament buildings in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

There is a compelling case for rationalising and upgrading the facilities of Parliament House. There is a staggering amount of wasted space inside the circular building, and there are various nooks and crannies that are used as dumping zone for everything from broken furniture to long-forgotten government reports that nobody will ever read. The majestic Central Hall is being used as space for lunch and for idle gossip, and yet there are no spaces for MPs to meet visitors for a quiet discussion. The communications within Parliament are at best basic and the first floor has a rich exhibition of exposed wires and broken flagstones.

None of these are insurmountable problems. There is a case for providing office space to all MPs in an adjoining new building linked to the main building by a walkway.

The Parliament building also has enough space to create two or three restaurants that will prevent the further desecration of the Central Hall. And the many godowns inside Parliament House could be relocated elsewhere. What is required is some efficient housekeeping and some imaginative upgradation — exercises that are not rocket science.

The tendency to build afresh, rather than restore and upgrade something old, is overwhelming. However, there is an equal case for being rooted in history. The Palace of Westminster is a maze and when there is a full house, MPs sit tightly cramped. Yet this has never affected the quality and purposefulness of debates. Likewise, despite the misplaced desire to gloss over a troubled past, Germany has restored the old Reichstag as its present Parliament, without compromising efficiency or the grandeur of the past.

New India needs modernity but it can’t afford to lose the majesty of the past.

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