Presiding over the bhoomi pooja, or the laying of the foundation stone, of the new Parliament building, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi said democracy was a matter of "talking and listening". Unfortunately, the bhoomi pooja has taken place at a time when the government is doing the talking and not showing much willingness to listen. The PM's voice was the only voice heard at the ceremony. It would have strengthened the symbolism of the occasion if the voice of the Opposition had also been heard.
The Opposition boycotted the ceremony because it claimed the government had not been willing to listen to its views on the project. The Opposition claimed that the construction was being rushed through without adequate consultation in order to have the monumental new building ready to mark the 75th anniversary of India's Independence just two years away.
Now, parliamentary affairs minister, Pralhad Joshi, has announced that there isn't going to be a winter session of Parliament even though the Congress is pressing for a debate on the farm agitation. In his letter to Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, he explained his decision saying, "The winter months are crucial for managing the pandemic".
At the same time, he maintained the monsoon session, which was held during the pandemic, had been "one of the most productive sessions of Parliament with 27 bills passed by both houses in ten continuous sittings". But that success was achieved by taking the opportunity of the session being shortened because of an outbreak of Covid-19 among Members of Parliament (MPs) and parliamentary staff, to steamroll those bills through Parliament without the customary time for debate.
None of the bills was referred to a parliamentary committee to give a chance for further deliberation on them.
The government is now paying the price for not hearing the concerns of the Opposition and farmers before rushing its three controversial agricultural bills through Parliament. If the agriculture minister and his team had listened to the farmers' unions before drafting the bill, they would have learnt of their concerns about the corporate sector coming into agriculture, and had an opportunity to explain why their fears were not justified.
Although ministers have appealed to farmers to talk to them, they have also adopted the familiar tactics of defamation which only increases bitterness and decreases the possibility of constructive talks leading to an agreement. The leader of the influential Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Group) Joginder Singh Ugrahan said, "First they called us Khalistanis, then they called us Pakistanis, now we are called Naxals. The same people harp on about the importance of dialogue."
The Ugrahan Group did wave posters demanding the release of the activists and intellectuals arrested in the Bhima Koregan case. This led to law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, saying that the accused in that case, whom he described as the tukde tukde gang, "had got behind the farmers' movement and were firing from its shoulder". The frequency with which spokesmen for the government level charges of plotting to break up the nation reminds me of McCarthyism in the United States of the 1950s. Heightened tensions during the Cold War fuelled fears that communist spies had infiltrated the federal government, universities, and the film industry and led to paranoia which came to be called the search for "reds under the bed".
Creating the fear that there could be threats to break India seems to me designed to feed nationalist paranoia and insulting because it implies India is so fragile it could be broken. Of course, the government does need to talk but if it does not also listen more, what is the point of the new Parliament House?
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.