‘Parliament functioning needs serious reform’

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SENIOR BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s last book on Muhammad Ali Jinnah created a lot of controversy. He was thrown out of the party and later reinstated. His new book, The Audacity of Opinion: Reflections, Journeys, Musings, is much mellower in comparison. It is a collection of his writings on a wide range of topics. In a conversation with Kunal Majumder, Singh, 74 discusses the relevance of some of the topics in the current context and also his favourite subject: foreign policy.

Jaswant Singh, BJP MP
Jaswant Singh, BJP MP
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW

Let’s begin by talking about the role of Parliament on which you have written a lot. Today, the BJP is being accused of stalling Parliament. In your articles in the 1980s, you said that Opposition parties should be shown more respect. Do you think things have improved?
In substance, it has changed. Of course, there is much greater formality now. Numerically, we have more MPs than what we had in the times of Indiraji and Rajiv Gandhi. But somewhere, I think the element of venerating the institution has evaporated. I was a young army officer during the last days of Jawaharlal Nehru. His diligence of attending Parliament was renowned. When Parliament was in session, he wouldn’t agree to any engagements that would keep him away from the House. I would say the current prime minister excels at not attending Parliament. I don’t want to elaborate. But for that matter, he is not a Lok Sabha MP. It is unusual.

THE AUDACITY OF OPINION Jaswant Singh  Amaryllis 676 pp; 895
THE AUDACITY OF OPINION
Jaswant Singh
Amaryllis
676 pp; Rs 895

But who is to be blamed for stalling the Monsoon Session of Parliament?
I’m not going to blame anyone because that’s not going to solve anything. It is really a question of self-introspection.

When you say introspection, do you include the Opposition parties?
Yes, everyone must introspect.

How can Parliament become relevant again?
It’s a tough question. We need to go through a reform act. Victorian England went through four or five reform acts of Parliament. We have had hundreds of amendments to the Constitution. But have we reformed or even fine-tuned the functioning of both the Houses of Parliament? We have to address this. In my book, there is a piece that elaborates — sacrilegious you might almost say — whether we are fit for parliamentary democracy. The late BK Nehru often said that we are not fit for this kind of first-past-the-post parliamentary democracy.

You initiated the Indo-US nuclear deal when you were the foreign minister in the NDA regime. But your party did a U- turn when the UPA inked the deal. Why?
Often, policies get dictated by circumstances… by the politics of circumstances. To work on the basis that the Opposition will always work in accord with the ruling establishment is difficult to accept. Today, Manmohan Singh is advocating FDI in retail. When he was the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, he said no way.

What you are saying is exactly what the Congress accuses your party of. The country’s two biggest parties are flipflopping on policy decisions depending on who is in power.
Your observation is correct. But what’s the solution? For example, the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was strategically a step forward. However, have we managed to produce even 1 MW due to the deal? So who is right and who is wrong? Post-Fukushima, the entire debate has altered beyond recognition. The question that was asked then and is being asked again is why is the US interested in selling nuclear reactors to India when not a single plant is coming up in the US. You might say these are juvenile questions. But they are asked and they need an answer.

In an essay on secularism that you wrote two years before the Babri Masjid demolition, you said that destroying the mosque will not help the agitation. Do you think that the demolition was a mistake?
Advaniji has himself said it was a failure of the movement. He is not questioning the relevance of the movement. He says the movement went out of hand and engaged in an act of lawlessness.

In an article in 1987, you suggested that India and Pakistan should agree to simultaneously go nuclear and enter into a non-proliferation pact. You were part of the NDA regime in 1998 when both tested nuclear bombs. Did you initiate any dialogue with the Pakistanis?
There is an agreement about annually sharing the list of nuclear installations. Implicit in that is that we would not attack each other’s nuclear installations. But we need to go further. The whole concept has changed now. India’s nuclear policy is not Pakistan-centric, whereas Pakistan’s is totally India-centric. I find the concept of tactical nuclear weapons absurd in the context of India and Pakistan. Tactical implies small nuclear weapons with a range below 200 km. So if you use nuclear weapons against Amritsar, you also destroy Lahore. It doesn’t make any sense.

How do you read the change in Indo- Pakistan ties? We are now trying to do trade with Pakistan, that too with the support of the Pakistan Army.
Perhaps, the Pakistan Army is now beginning to come to terms with the reality of having to fight on two fronts and the strain it is placing on not just the manpower but also on equipment and the civilian population. It is a reasonable and rational decision to move towards peace with India.

In your articles in the 1980s, you were critical of the US policy towards India. Then as foreign minister, you were responsible for the shift that took place in India’s relationship with the US. But many now suggest that with Barack Obama, there has been a further shift.
No. In reality, without any self-advertisement, what was achieved by the dialogue during the Clinton era, and subsequently written about by Strobe Talbott (Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, 2004), solidified the foundation of Indo-US relations. It was during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time that the transformation took place.

No one doubts your government’s role in transforming Indo-US relations. My question is in terms of the change in the American way of looking at India beyond just as a market. Especially as we see India’s growing role in Afghanistan.
In American policy formation, economics is always a major factor, which is not the same as our policy. The US doesn’t need India as much as for Afghanistan as it needs India for being a relatively stable pillar in this region of turmoil.

You also write about how we live with nuclear China and yet it is not in our reckoning. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion, is China still missing from our reckoning?
In 1962, I was posted in the Northeast. Though I was a tankman, there was panic. Tezpur was abandoned. Nehru said “our heart goes to Assam”. It was a very strange observation. The soldiers were very angry about it. However, this trauma left an imprint both on the Services and the Ministry of External Affairs. The Services have gotten over the trauma but the MEA is yet to correct itself. I don’t mean it as a criticism. It is a very able ministry but doesn’t always have a very able leadership

Kunal Majumder is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
kunal@tehelka.com

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