Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes on new Parliament: India’s age of ambition

The transition to a new Parliament building is one more marker in India’s new Age of Ambition. Amid all the immediate dangers our democracy faces, it is sometimes easy to miss that the dominant emotional register of our times is national ambition. Everything has to be imagined in terms of the “new”, a break with a recent past whose greatest sin was its lack of ambition. Time has to be redefined, not in terms of a few years, but in terms of whole eons. This is the inauguration of Amrit Kaal. Scale has to be redefined. It is all too easy to dismiss the relentless public construction as authoritarian kitsch. But often, time consecrates aesthetics as much as taste. But this fascination with modernist infrastructure, too, is tapping into a revolt against a previous kind of mediocrity, the low ambition of India’s Public Works Department. Our command over history is now stamped through a new infrastructural nationalism. The excessive use of Vishwaguru or the “Mother of Everything” may border on historical inanity. But its function is to keep the emotional furnace of national ambition burning.

It is important to register this dominant mood. It is a political reality that cannot be wished away. To be politically successful at this moment, to capture the imagination in democracy will require stoking this ambitious impulse. It will require painting a canvas of success, literally stamping it all around us. This is exactly the impulse that Prime Minister Modi is a master at tapping, that sense of elevation he constantly produces. It is true this sense of elevation is much like the effect of a conjurer’s trick. But its ability to tap into a disposition for vicarious pride is unmatched.

This is where the Opposition struggles the most: Its inability to tap into a psychological register of ambition. It either has to tap into a sense of fear, something like the thought that democracy is in danger. This fear is analytically well founded. But it is a fear that wilts away in the face of ambition. Or it has to tap into a narrative of failure over the last decade, which is hard to sell with a degree of vividness, especially when people see visible signs of expansion in state capacity. Or, it has to once again devolve into a politics of nostalgia and restoration of the status quo ante, an ancient regime trying to re-establish itself, long after the revolution has taken place. The framing of the move to a new parliament building as a new beginning, an acceleration of ambition is meant to register precisely this overcoming of a politics of fear, failure or nostalgia. The Age of Ambition has arrived. Any criticism of this age, that does not have a counter ambition painting vivid dreams, will be brushed aside as mere pedantry.

Ambition can stir people to righteousness. In a way, the consecration of a new parliament building, with a milestone in the history of representation in India, the Women’s Reservation Bill, is a legislatively clever way of signalling the government’s success. How that might change Indian politics in the long run remains to be seen. The Bill is an act of inclusion. But it will exacerbate the tension between the core principle on which our Parliament was organised — territorial representation — and the outcomes we want — proportional representation. For instance, will it weaken the power of the individual legislator by subjecting constituencies to even more rotation in representation?

But this Age of Ambition is also marked by a new ruthlessness and unrelenting instrumentalism that decimates all dissent, respect for forms, and the propriety of procedure. Parliament is no longer connected to the dignity of legislation, it is simply a staging site for the performance of this Age of Ambition, now increasingly personified in one leader. It is a chamber of acclaim, not of deliberation; of endorsing the executive, not checking it, of counting heads rather than caring about what is in people’s heads. It is now governed by the heavy conformity of party whips, rather than the free thinking of legislatures. The Indian Parliament was always weak in terms of the internal rules that governed it. The Speaker has too much arbitrary discretion; the rules of what can be debated and how are not transparent or codified. Committees can sometimes do good work. But they rarely exercise the kind of oversight they should over the way the government functions in Parliament.

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But these infirmities of Parliament have been exacerbated by the deterioration in the relations between the ruling party and the Opposition. To the messiness of Parliament, we have now added the odour of rancour. It is an act of hope to suppose that the transition to a new parliament building will also invigorate Parliament. But it is an act of hope, one that at the moment runs directly headlong into the Age of Ambition.

This is a bad moment in the history of democracies for legislatures in general. In retrospect, it is remarkable how rare and precarious legislatures are: Continental Europe seldom had legislatures that could inspire confidence, and increasingly, in countries like France, they are being sidelined by a culture of executive decrees. The administrative complexity of the modern state is eluding legislative oversight. The prestige of the United States Congress is down. The very nature of what “representation” means at this moment is severely contested. Can the Indian Parliament be thought of, as a representative institution, a mirror of the nation, that through deliberation, moulds the shifting diversities of the demos into a just and workable whole? Or, is it closer to merely being a mode of authorisation for the executive?

In this Age of Ambition, it is, of course, sacrilege to quote anything “foreign.” But the romance of a parliament that is both deeply deliberative and an instrument of accountability was best captured by Elias Canetti, “Whenever the English go through bad times, I am wonderstruck by their Parliament. There is a possibility here of attacking the rulers that has no equal in the world. And they are no less rulers for it… six hundred ambitious men watch one another with hawk’s eyes: Weaknesses cannot remain concealed, strengths make a difference as long as they are strengths. Everything takes place out in the open… There is nothing more remarkable than the nation doing its most important business in a ritual sporting way, and not deviating even when water is up to its neck.” Hope the Age of Ambition will allow, not just for a new parliament, but for parliamentarianism as our new dharma.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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