The PM and the politics of questioning

Why Parliament should consider the practice of weekly Prime Minister’s Questions

A politician who can master the media can shape political affairs outside of parliament and even eliminate the mediation of parliament. — Umberto Eco

The Monsoon session of Parliament is upon us — and if we go by recent history, the Prime Minister, the central spokesperson of the government in Parliament, may once again not be compelled to answer the questions directed at his government.

Recently, there were two interesting developments. First, as the second anniversary celebrations of the BJP-led NDA government began, a BJP spokesperson tweeted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the “most hardworking PM ever in Indian history”. The reason was that Mr. Modi delivered a speech every 45.6 hours in two years.

And second, this summer, the Mr. Modi gave his first full-fledged television interview in two years.

There is a bewildering irony here: the Prime Minister who has given the most number of speeches in the first two years has taken the least number of questions from the people. There is a chasm between Mr. Modi’s frequency of speeches as well as communicating through 140 characters, and the refusal to converse with, and be interrogated by, the people. This irony of monologue is a defining feature of the current regime.

How do we get our elected leaders, especially the head of the government, to take and answer questions from the people is a question that must animate us.

Parliament is the ultimate forum to achieve this task. Yet, it has seen a progressive decline in the nature and quality of debates and interventions. The number of sitting days in the last three Lok Sabhas including the present one is almost half of the first Lok Sabha. Crucially, the Prime Minister himself has played only a minimal role in the proceedings of this Lok Sabha, leave alone regularly answering questions from the members.

This is despite Mr. Modi declaring that “conversation and debates are the soul of Parliament.” It is also in sharp contrast to the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who used to attend Parliament regularly. Indeed, if the BJP once mocked Manmohan Singh as the “NRI-PM”, ironically, the same tag has come back to be applied on Mr. Modi. India does not, in any case, have a parliamentary practice like that of the “Prime Minister’s Questions” in the U.K. where the Prime Minister takes questions from MPs every sitting week for a dedicated time.

When debate shifts

It is the decline of Parliament as the voice of the people, as the forum where the most important matters are publicly debated, that has led to the hardening of a monologic politics, with debate shifting to other institutions like the fourth estate. Of course, the fourth estate is by no means, “the people”, but in a capitalist democracy it at least provides the fig leaf of protection of people’s interests, with some sections more attuned to the popular ferment than most others. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s reluctance to take questions from the press and be subject to even its minimal scrutiny is particularly damaging to the largest democracy in the world.

In this, Mr. Modi, ironically, continues the legacy of Dr. Singh, who was widely criticised for his silence and who interacted with the Indian press collectively only thrice during his 10-year tenure. But Mr. Singh did speak with many foreign media houses in his first term. That Mr. Modi lags way behind Dr Singh in the foreign realm, where he has sought to create a definitive impression, including, unprecedentedly, on the Indian diaspora — betrays the monologic nature of his politics.

Anachronistic politics

Monologic politics is increasingly outmoded as the discourse of democracy, equality and freedom cannot be wished away as before. Besides, now we are in an era when we have the technological tools, like social media, which even when their effects have not often been benign, provide unique access to marginalised groups to question the powerful. Monologic politics of ‘Mann ki Baat’ is an attempt to turn back the clock. It resembles what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, before the era of social networking, had called the refeudalisation of the public sphere. It meant the control of the public sphere by powerful private interests, especially corporations. The public sphere, instead of one where citizens rationally deliberate about matters concerning society, becomes one which is managed top-down by those wielding political and economic power. Politics is here reduced to spectacles on television, or to public relations managed by private firms, and citizens become mere passive consumers.

Any attempt to push forward democracy will have to break the stranglehold of monologic politics. There is a disjuncture between the flow of social media and the concentration of power in a few people. While the Prime Minister takes to forums like Twitter and Facebook, he is acknowledging the power of the multitude. Umberto Eco would have called it media populism — “appealing to people directly through media.” But at the same time, by refusing to indulge in a genuine conversation or dialogue, the Prime Minister pulls back to a monologic politics.

This refusal to dialogue with the people is rare in democracies. Barack Obama recently became the first American President to complete 1000 interviews!

Freedom to ask

The fundamental basis of a democracy is dialogue. No democracy can survive in any meaningful sense when it degenerates into a monologue. But as Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, contends, there is no dialogue without humility, or faith in the people and their power to change the world.

Democracy is not about the nation’s leaders talking at or to people, but talking with them. We cannot sing paeans to democracy while refusing to let the people ask questions. And as Freire would put it, “If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.” That would require at least the restoration of the sanctity of the Parliament as the forum of the people, as well as the dignity of the fourth estate as an independent observer.


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