Nominated Rajya Sabha celebs lose relevance

While Modi’s non-BJP predecessors exploited celeb soft power to advance the Nehruvian and Congress doctrines, the current BJP lot comprises luminaries who haven't contributed enough to promoting Mission Modi in their public life.
L-R: Celebs and former Rajya Sabha MPs Rekha, Sachin Tendulkar, and Mary Kom
L-R: Celebs and former Rajya Sabha MPs Rekha, Sachin Tendulkar, and Mary KomFile | PTI

Nomination alone does not define denomination. The purpose of nominating eminent personalities to the Rajya Sabha was initially meant to raise its intellectual voltage. Now it is to send an ideological message, emblematic of glamour, caste or cadre. Over the past 70 years, the role and quality of nominated MPs have undergone a massive change.They are either absentees or disinterested debate-ducking backbenchers.

Last week, the president nominated Satnam Singh, founder of the privately-owned Chandigarh University, to the Rajya Sabha in recognition of his contributions to Indian education. Hailing from a modest background, he became a super-successful edupreneur. His selection reflects Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s model of picking unknown persons with poor or ordinary social and economic backgrounds to give them respectability and national recognition. During the Congress era, nominated MPs were ideological collaborators. The saffron beneficiaries now ride many horses—political neutrality, invisibility—and enjoy an MP’s perks.

All that glitters may not be gold, but the golden jubilee club has always been a matinee attraction of the RS since 1952—of the 145-odd nominated members since inception, who include MPs nominated more than once, the largest number (24) has been from the entertainment world. The common factor is their connectivity with government powers, particularly the prime minister. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi nominated 65 persons. Manmohan Singh honoured 19.

Though all 14 prime ministers have selected a substantial number of heavy hitters, merit wasn’t their only criterion. The Gandhi parivar chose the most (65) due their being in power for nearly three decades; Rajiv Gandhi designated 12 MPs in five years.

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However, the nomination process didn’t start as a favour circus. Nehru picked the best in their respective fields. Among the first 12 nominated members were Zakir Husain (educationist), Alladi Krishnaswami (legal Luminary), Satyendranath Bose (scientist), Rukmini Devi Arundale (artist), Kakasaheb Kalelkar (scholar), Maithilisharan Gupta (poet) and Prithviraj Kapoor (artist).

Nehru explained, “The president has nominated some members of the Council of States who, if I may say so, are among the most distinguished, taking everybody in parliament altogether. It is true, distinguished in arts, science, etc—and our Constitution in its wisdom gave that. They do not represent political parties or anything, but they represent really the high watermark of literature or art or culture or whatever it may be.”

Unfortunately, few records exist about the number of speeches they made. Happily, some of them were non-partisan. For example, Kapoor, the doyen of Indian cinema during the 1950s and ’60s, was scathing towards politicians. In his debut speech he stated: “We may be flying to the skies, but our contact with the earth must never be lost. But if we read too much of economics and politics, our contact with earth begins to disappear—our soul gets parched and dried up. It is from that drying up of the soul that our politician friends have to be guarded and saved—and it is for that purpose that the nominated members, the educationists, scientists, poets, writers and artists are here.”

However, Nehru ensured that the first team was in ideological harmony with left liberalism and internationalism. His subsequent choices were of remarkably high quality: Tara Chand (historian), Jairamdas Daulatram, Mohan Lal Saxena and R R Diwakar (social workers). Nehru, however, abjured nominating corporate leaders. He preferred educationists and scientists; a practice Indira followed. But she mostly preferred opinion leaders who were both personally loyal and promoted her political philosophy in public. Indira and Nehru had mastered the art of leveraging intellectual capital for promoting their personality cult and political messages. A few such luminaries were poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Leftist historian Nurul Hasan, liberal educationists Rasheeduddin Khan, V P Dutt, and artists such as Habib Tanvir.

Rajiv created his own hagiology: Salim Ali (ornithologist), Amrita Pritam (litterateur), Ela Ramesh Bhatt (social worker), M F Hussain (artist), R K Narayan (litterateur) and Ravi Shankar (musician). P V Narasimha Rao could nominate only four RS members including Vyjayantimala since Congress pressure groups demanded RS posts for their supporters. This benefited I K Gujral later, who filled the eight vacancies with social apple polishers like Shabana Azmi in a single day.

L-R: Celebs and former Rajya Sabha MPs Rekha, Sachin Tendulkar, and Mary Kom
Government tanks treacherous think tanks

Continuity is the hallmark of Rajya Sabha nominations. Vajpayee followed the principle of nominating celebs from every sector, but also failed or about-to-retire politicians on caste or regional considerations. Three of the 11 members sent by the BJP government between 1998 and 2003—Lata Mangeshker, Dara Singh and Hema Malini—were from Bollywood. Vajpayee chose three scientists, economist Bimal Jalan for political expediency, credible jurist Fali Nariman, and three politicians. Some of them made great contributions to parliamentary debates, but were rarely involved in critical legislative business.

Manmohan Singh, who was PM for a decade, stuck to the name and fame template. His government nominated around 15 Rajya Sabha members, of which three were from tinsel town: Javed Akhtar, Shyam Benegal and Rekha. Rekha’s nomination is a mystery, since she rarely had a single line of dialogue on any subject. Manmohan’s other choices included two media professionals, two corporate leaders Ashok Ganguly and Anu Agha, the father of the Green Revolution M S Swaminathan, and economist C Rangarajan. Under pressure, he accommodated Gandhi loyalists Kapila Vatsyayan and Mani Shankar Aiyar. Legal eagle Ram Jethmalani got his nomination thanks to Lalu Yadav’s pressure on the UPA, being an alliance partner.

But leave it to the unpredictable Modi to change the rules of the game. During his first term, he was guided by controllers of the Lutyens system and the Delhi establishment. He nominated persons sponsored by various groups and individuals within the party and outside. After he settled in, he has been focusing on the utility and loyalty factor. So far, he has nominated 20-odd individuals, the majority of whom have political connections. His celeb quotient has ideological and political undertones—Rupa Ganguly from West Bengal, Suresh Gopi and P T Usha from Kerala, Ilaiyaraaja from Tamil Nadu and Mary Kom from the northeast; they also have some electoral magnetism. Modi ignored political uproar and brought in former CJI Ranjan Gogoi. So far, their debating talents are on mute. Ilaiyaraaja has rarely been seen. Gogoi’s attendance has been 40 percent.

However, while Modi’s non-BJP predecessors exploited celeb soft power to advance the Nehruvian and Congress doctrines, the current BJP lot comprises freeloaders who have failed to promote Mission Modi in public life. They must be asked to contest elections and join the cabinet if they win, so that the government gets their valuable expertise.

Undoubtedly, a vast majority of the nominated members have been personalities who made India proud. An Ashoka University study on the performance of nominated Rajya Sabha members during the past 12 years noted that they are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Sachin Tendulkar logged just 22 percent attendance and avoided debates, perhaps because he was busy scoring records on the field. Dara Singh's attendance was only 57 percent; he had zero participation in any debate. Majority of them didn’t spend the money they were given to spend on welfare projects.

Evidently, the original idea of getting the best apolitical minds into parliament has failed. No doubt, most of them are globally acclaimed national assets. But the time has come to review the concept of nominations due to mere constitutional compulsions. The idea has lost both its relevance and utility. The Rajya Sabha is not a parking lot for ageing or glittering icons. It is where members rise above the exigencies of politics and put nation first. No partisans, only participants, should be the motto of the Upper House.

Prabhu Chawla

Follow him on X @PrabhuChawla

(Read all columns of Prabhu Chawla's here)

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