So long, Central Hall — once a space for forging consensus, now rapidly shrinking

Neerja Chowdhury

During the Budget session, Parliament is always a riot of colours — the vivid red salvias, the multi-coloured dahlias, the rich yellow marigolds, and manicured green lawns. Earlier this week, the peace in the gardens outside was in sharp contrast to what was on inside the Lok Sabha.

Rahul Gandhi’s attack on the Prime Minister alleging a link between his ascendancy to power and the rise in Gautam Adani’s wealth provoked a strong rebuttal. The Prime Minister hit back in his inimitable style without naming the party or Rahul, setting the stage for 2024, which is likely to become a Modi versus Rahul battle.

Said an MP, “Kal Rahul ne BJP ko dho diya, aaj PM ne unpar teekha palatwar kiya (Rahul launched a scathing attack on the BJP yesterday and today the PM carried out a sharp counterattack).” At least, issues were being settled through debate — not din and disruption, increasingly the language of parliamentary debates. The most worrying aspect, however, is the bitterness that now overwhelms the relationship between the ruling party and the Opposition at present —and this was evident too.

For old times’ sake, I decided to walk to the Central Hall of Parliament, where political rivals would sit side by side after duelling inside the House, having coffee or Darjeeling tea and toast. At the entrance, I was stopped. ”Ma’am I am so sorry I can’t let you in. Only MPs are allowed in now.” I knew this. The Central Hall, which used to be open to senior members of the media — and former MPs, ministers, governors, and chief ministers — till a couple of years ago, now allows only MPs to enter. The others have been debarred from entering the space.

“It’s a different gentry now than in your time. That was a golden period,“ said the security person, his voice tinged with sadness. “It was also my golden period … But we have to adjust to it.”

There were around 20 MPs inside. Their number only doubles at best, the security person said. Very different from the large number of parliamentarians who used to gather there, particularly during Budget session, sit in groups, animatedly discuss. As I watched the grey-and-red sandstone building of the new Parliament coming up behind the Gandhi statue, I realised it will not have a Central Hall or an equivalent space. A journalist from one of the government media units whispered in my ear, “They are saying they might build a room for the media outside the building on the premises.”

Referred to as “the biggest eatery and gossipry in town”, the Central Hall of Parliament is much more than that. Sometimes, it generated new ideas through informal interactions. At other times, it ended a standoff. The late Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan of the BJP would tell the most aggressive of Opposition leaders stalling the House, “Bas aap ne opposition kar liya na, ab baith ke rasta nikalaen? (You have made your point, now can we find a way forward?)”

Yet, on other occasions, it led to a consensus. The initial chats of Prithviraj Chavan, then MoS PMO for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj led to a consensus on the tricky Nuclear Liability Bill in 2010. Sometimes, the Opposition and MPs from the ruling side collaborated to demolish a common opponent! More than anything else, the Central Hall created friendships across the political divide — even bonhomie — leading to relationships that made dialogue easier during crises.

There was a logic to allowing senior journalists (only those with more than 15 years of experience) access to the Central Hall, according to PDT Achary, who was the secretary general of the 14th Lok Sabha and joined Parliament first in 1970 as an official. It enabled journalists and editors to gain a more valuable understanding of what was really going on in government and political circles — by convention, everything in the Central Hall is “off the record” — “in order to do their work better”. This stemmed from an appreciation for the media’s distinct role in a parliamentary democracy and also an admission that there has to be dignity in the relationship between politicians and journalists.

Even during Emergency, Indira Gandhi did not prevent journalists from coming to Central Hall. Achary said the PM had, however, told her colleagues “not to hobnob” with the media. She never sat in the Central Hall, only passed through it while walking from one House to the other. Old-timers in the Coffee Board remember how, at 9 am, they used to prepare a tray to take a freshly brewed cup of coffee to her, which she liked. It was one of those hundreds of rituals, conventions, and traditions that have been associated with the history of Parliament.

The Central Hall is most remembered for the “tryst with destiny” speech that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered just before midnight on August 14, 1947, as India awoke to freedom. At the stroke of midnight, Constituent Assembly President Rajendra Prasad read out a pledge together with all the members and the Assembly assumed powers to govern India. Handing over the national flag to Prasad, freedom fighter Hansa Mehta said it was in the fitness of things that the first flag flying over “this august house” should be a gift from the women of India.

Over the years, other big events followed. It was in the Central Hall that Sonia Gandhi declared on May 18, 2004, that she was not going to take over the prime ministership. The Goods and Services Tax was rolled out there at a midnight function on July 1, 2017. There was another seminal moment a few days ago when President Droupadi Murmu arrived at the hall to give the customary, start-of-the-Budget-session Presidential address to both Houses. She became the first Adivasi woman to do the honours.

The Central Hall of Parliament was not just a physical space. It’s a metaphor, an opportunity to facilitate communication between opposing entities — government, Opposition, and media — each called to do their bit.

The decision to do away with it reflects a breakdown that is taking place at various levels — in the journalist-politician relationship and also between the ruling side and the Opposition, increasingly scarred by bitterness, making them enemies to be demolished and not opponents. Above all, it represents the shrinking of democratic space in the country.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)