Parliament is not about space, it’s about ideas: Hamid Ansari

Parliament is doing much less work than before and that’s what should worry people, not how much space each MP has in Parliament house, feels the man who presided over Rajya Sabha for 10 long years

Former Vice President Hamid Ansari
Former Vice President Hamid Ansari

Ashlin Mathew

“There is no dearth of identities in India. But the uniting thing is that I am Indian citizen…my identity is my identity. It is not bestowed on me. It is not someone’s gift,” says former Vice President and Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari in course of an interview with NH on his recently published autobiography, ‘By Many A Happy Accident: Recollections of A Life’

The government’s decision to splurge Rs 20,000 crore on anew central vista including a new Parliament building has drawn sharp criticism. What is your opinion?

My question is not how much space each member may get or how big and beautiful a hall is, but how much time is spent there. There was a time when Indian Parliament would meet for about 100 days in a year. Now, it meets for 60 days or less. That means less work is being done on accountability, debating public issues and drafting legislations. So, it’s not about everyone having a comfortable seat. That is not the issue.

You have mentioned in the book that PM Modi once came to your chamber to ask why Bills were not being passed in the din. Would you say he wanted to by pass parliamentary procedures?

I won’t put it that way. Every government tries to rush legislations as quickly as possible with as little debating as possible. The normal procedure is when the government brings a new piece of legislation, the House time allocation committee meets in the chamber of the chairman and decides at the initiative of the minister of parliamentary affairs that this subject will be debated for these many hours etc. Sometimes, there are political urgencies to push it through and not scrutinise it.

My point about scrutiny is that not all wisdom lies with the government. There may be brilliant people drafting the legislations, but they are still human. Another person looking at it will see things differently. That is why so many pieces of legislation land up in courts. It’s best to avoid it by taking the view of as many people as possible.

You observe that the term ‘secularism’ itself has disappeared from the government’s vocabulary. Is India then a secular nation only in name now?

I said that based on the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto. Secularism is part of the Constitution. If it is not being observed, then we are not implementing a part of the Constitution. We see it in everyday life. After all, secularism is a concept. Our perception of secularism is different from the French concept of secularism. For them it is the state being irreligious. Our founding fathers concluded that the Indian society cannot be forced to be irreligious, but what the Indian society can do is to treat all religions equally. That’s all. Some of the practices which are emanating from the state governments point otherwise. The law on conversion is not a matter for a single state.

In the Sachar Committee report, one of there commendations was to set up the ‘Equality Commission’. A Parliamentary Standing Committee had also submitted a report. Is it possible to implement it now?

In the present state of affairs, I do not see that as apriority.  The point is no one pays attention to the policy-making system in our country. We follow a federal system, which means certain decisions are followed by the central government, implemented by the state government mostly. This is what happened with the Sachar report. Decisions were taken, passed on to the state governments. For one reason or the other, they did not get implemented in the right spirit. Now, nobody talks about it.

During your tenure as the Rajya Sabha Chairperson, the Women’s Bill was passed with a lot of difficulty. Do you think it will ever be passed though BJP now has full majority?

In the Rajya Sabha, there was a segment of the membership who were dead opposed to it. On the day that it was debated, it was found that the Opposition was vocal and going beyond normal procedures. I had to adjourn the House. I called the leaders of all parties to my room, including the Leader of the Opposition Arun Jaitley and of course the government. I told them they were not obeying the rules, so the only way out was to evict them. It is not a pleasant thing to do, but everyone agreed they had to be evicted. The marshals had to be mobilised to physically evict them. Eventually, the Bill was passed after they were evicted. I don’t know if it will be passed again.

There are intermittent demands for removal of the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University from ruling party circles. As a former VC of AMU, how do you see this?

AMU is a central university, and it has been rated highly in terms of its work. Minority status, in practice, is that a certain percentage of seats in certain faculties would go to a particular section of the community. Now, the difficulty is that the political terminology has a bad word in it – reservation. I would much rather prefer the term ‘affirmative action’. This is internationally accepted terminology. We need affirmative action because we need to give a helping hand. If someone is not doing well in class, the teacher sees to it that the child gets extra tutoring.

Similarly, when Prime Minister used the terminology ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, I had said that it was excellent. But the requirement is everybody has to be at the same starting line and the same starting point. If a child is 10 steps behind, he cannot catch up. So, you take affirmative action and justify it on valid grounds. If you do not justify it on valid grounds, if you resort to politicking, then trouble is bound to emerge.

I think assurances were given, way back, that it is an institution established by Muslims and it is in the Act. That is how it should remain. Otherwise, you will question every such institution in the country. These are all politically disguised acts of hitting people from back.

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