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People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
— Michel Foucault
You could say Foucault’s proposition was visiting the political landscape this week. Friday saw the entire nation tuning in and out of the 12-hour spectacle of a no confidence motion brought by TDP and the Opposition. The average John Jaani Janardhan could well step up and ask, does the political class know what what they do does? The score at 11.08 pm, in the hour approaching pumpkin time, read 325-126.
Soon after Rahul Gandhi finished his speech, the BJP’s Twitter handle, @BJP4India, posted a cleverish “We cannot thank you enough for the entertainment.” It would be seductive to adopt the framing to characterize much of the 12-hour binge of political bluff and bluster. The fact is, between word duels, amidst the decibels and beyond the optics of hugs and winks, reality was calling out.
Predictably, the lasting impression on the viewers was visual, not the words of angst and anguish. The hugs and snubs have dominated the post-mortem, but if one shuts out the hoarse hustle, the hectoring and the hubris, the issues raised by the MPs reflect a tragic state of systemic dysfunction. The parade of lament by MPs, particularly of regional parties, represents the slide of state capacity and the rise of sloth.
The clinical presentation by TDP MP Jaydev Gala and later his colleague K Ram Mohan Naidu reflect rather poorly on the state of federalism. Gala termed the no trust motion as a battle between the majority and morality. The definition of what is moral depends on where one sits in Parliament. But there is no denying the fact that the chapter and verse recitation of grief paints a stark picture. And remember, this was a critical ally. It will be argued that the TDP doth exaggerate, but the BJP speakers couldn’t counter the litany.
Rakesh Singh, BJP MP from Jabalpur, revealed that a proposal to convert 285 km of narrow gauge into broad gauge first mooted and approved by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime was stalled for nearly two decades till it was cleared in 2015. Think about it. A proposal mooted and approved in the last century has finally been put on track in the next century. It didn’t help that the BJP was in power at the Centre and in the state post-2003.
Members of Parliament from both TRS and TDP listed out schemes, projects and investment proposals which are hanging fire. Karimnagar MP from TRS, B Vinod Kumar, chronicled a series of promises left in a limbo, including a tribal university, irrigation projects, a steel plant, a rail project and a thermal power plant. The TRS MP also put up a Centre-owes-state voucher, claiming unpaid dues of over `20,000 crore.
Almost ritually, MPs from state after state evoked the metaphor of mother and child and step-motherly treatment—to think that the founding fathers had underlined that the Centre and states are “co-equals”. P Venugopal, AIADMK MP from Tamil Nadu, complained dramatically: “We are gasping for breath in terms of our share of money”, and declared that the Centre owed Tamil Nadu over `6,000 crore, of which `550 crore was pending since a decade as ministers at the Centre had reneged on commitments.
Cutting across party lines, MPs raised the issue of states being shortchanged by the Centre—this despite the Centre’s assertion of devolving 42 per cent of revenues to states. Gala raised the issue of revenue collected as cess under various heads which is not shared with the Centre. Gala said the 42 per cent devolution was a myth and claimed the Centre in 2016-17 had collected `2.35 lakh crore as cess and not shared it with the states and said “effectively it is not 42 per cent but close to 36 or 37 per cent”. J Jayavardhan, AIADMK MP from South Chennai, cited a CAG report and said that between 1996-97 and 2014-15, the Centre had shortchanged states to the tune of `81,647.70 crore.
Members raised the issue of social harmony and attacks on the vulnerable. There was a certain disquiet among MPs on three critical issues—agrarian distress, job creation and the epidemic of lynching and mobocracy. The MPs questioned the government on not adhering to the formula recommended by the Swaminathan Report. Almost every MP paid token obeisance to the issue of employment but scarcely had any new ideas. The Whataboutery of lynching took discourse to a new nadir—political debate moved from riot vs riot to lynching during 1984 and lynching in 2018.
The most serious issue, though, is the rise of disillusionment and alienation articulated by MPs, particularly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Tiruvallur MP Venugopal said: “If the government does not pay immediate attention to the aspects that I raised, people of the country and especially the people of Tamil Nadu may lose their confidence in the Central government”. On Saturday, Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu flagged chapters from history and political geography. “People of Andhra Pradesh are very angry with the BJP and Modi because their sentiments were being taken for granted”, he said, and added, “What happened in Punjab? What happened in Assam? What happened in Jammu and Kashmir? It is only a sentiment. We didn’t deal with it properly.”
These are ominous echoes. As Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the architect of the Republic of India observed, “It will be a folly to ignore realities; facts take their revenge if they are not faced squarely and well.” The import of the sagacity articulated by the colossus, who brought together 554 princely states to create a nation, demands attention and absorption. It calls for all good men to get their parties to come to the table and agree on a common minimum agenda.