Debating in decibels
The story might well be apocryphal but it’s very much part of the foreign office folklore. Then a joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs, Muchkund Dubey had the habit of talking loudly on phone. His boss and foreign secretary M K Rasgotra occupied a room a few paces away from Dubey’s in the South Block.
One day, Rasgotra overheard Dubey booming way on phone. He waited outside his junior colleague’s room to walk in when the conversation was over. “A telephone,” he told Dubey, “is a very interesting instrument. One merely has to whisper at one’s end to be heard on the other. One needn’t shout across the seven seas.”
What Rasgotra told Dubey — who also retired as foreign secretary — is relevant as much for our MPs. Many of them, including the seasoned lot, are unable to distinguish parliamentary debates from speeches at public meetings. They are loud, aggressive and at times arrogant. Humor touches them seldom. Wit comes by but rarely. They load the air with decibels, not sound thought that’s epigrammatic and understated.
Parliament hasn’t been robbed entirely of the talent it once boasted. It has Pranab Mukherjee, Jaipal Reddy, P Chidambaram, Arun Jaitley, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, Kapil Sibal, Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat, Shahnawaz Hussain, Sandeep Dixit and Jyotiraditya Scindia.
But their presence isn’t adequate. Nor are their numbers. The void remains. And it has been left by the likes of Bhupesh Gupta, Madhu Limaye, Piloo Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Somnath Chatterjee, Indrajit Gupta, Chandrashekhar, Narasimha Rao, Madhu Dandavate, George Fernandes and KP Unnikrishnan to name a few.
They were men of great learning, erudition and poise. They didn’t need to raise their voice to make a point. The Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyar may not have belonged to that generation. But he has their class. It’s a pity that he couldn’t make it to the 15th Lok Sabha.
You may ask why LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj do not figure in my shortlist of existing good debaters? An exceptional public speaker, Sushma’s shrill beyond acceptable parliamentary limits and Advani a pale version of his former self that at times got him higher ratings than Vajpayee as a parliamentarian.
Those who shout in the name of debate must know that parliament is no theatre or fish-market. It’s about building the country through ‘ideas exchange’ that’s civil, intelligent and incisive. One can be humorous even while being acerbic. Remember what Feroze Gandhi told TT Krishnamachari (who had called him Nehru’s lap dog) before initiating a debate on a financial scam that involved the minister? “I hear you have been describing me as a lap-dog. You no doubt consider yourself a pillar of the State. Today I will do to you what a dog usually does to a pillar.”
That was years ago. But it’s recalled still as a telling example of razor sharp repartee.