The first and surprising thought speeding through my mind on seeing Sonia Gandhi is “oooh! nice hair man”.
I have just entered the Lok Sabha public gallery at the Parliament, New Delhi. My greedy eye-scan on the members of parliament (hereforth addressed as MP’s) seated in the green carpeted valley below me, stops at her.
I am eyeing her with curiosity-- not because of her white skin and smooth, tinted italian hair, pushed back with a black velvet hairband-- (the type of hairband we wore in the 90’s)-- but because of the MP’s hovering around her, with the caution and pretentious excitement you would around the boss you absolutely HAVE to be on good terms with.
BEEN WAITING FOR THIS
Growing up, Lok Sabha question hour TV was always ON in the living room. My father would accompany the proceedings with a running commentary. After the age of fast internet, I started viewing the best of LSTV speeches on Youtube- Modi’s replies, Smritis feary speech and the ever favourite Sushma Swaraj. 36 hours ago, I had NO idea I would get a pass to view the Lok Sabha parliament proceedings (and disruptions) of the biggest democracy of the world-- India. So as I am experiencing this live, I am hyper with excitement.
I’m losing count of how many security checks I just went through. After my first security check at the gate, I was guided to a line that attached itself into a sparky polished ‘wow this can be a govt office?’ circular reception area. Here my invitation was scanned, and I was allowed through a turnstile and into the premises of the iconic circular building. Then past the road around the parliament, and past the lawns, I entered the building area where I went through another security check and another turnstile later, my pass was rescanned and then another check near the gallery, I was made to pass another ID scan test. Or was it on the previous turnstile? See, I am forgetting already. Before you say ‘pics or it didn’t happen’, I am not allowed to take anything with me-- no phones, no purses, no devices, nothin’.
I now understand why.
I am at a small distance of 20 meters from my most favourite (and least favourite!) ministers. From where I am seated, I can recognize the back of Nitin Gadkari (Minister of Transport)m seated in the front row of the semi-circular hall. I look at his lap-- He is reading through a neatly organized folder, with bright sticky notes peeking out from the paper. I think it’s his turn to speak today.
My eyes widen-- On his left, seated independently, is Rajnath Singh, the current Home Minister. He looks so dignified in his white ironed kurta with a black sleeveless sweater-jacket. He also looks like he has a 1000 things on his mind but I don’t think he’s going to talk today, as he is leaned back, legs crossed and has a rolled up paper held in the O of his hand-- the stance of someone just listening in.
I am finally understanding my orientation-- Speakers Desk at the head, to the left of the desk, are Congress (the opposition). Closer to my side are the ministers from BJP. And the rest?
The rest of the MPs-- though they must be famous and powerful, I am recognising no one else with my eye scan.
I am a little disappointed now.
Where are my other favourites? Sushma, Modi, Smriti? But there is no time to linger on those feelings. I am still reeling from what I saw outside the building.
THE MOAT OF BUSY PEOPLE
When I entered the parliament garden area, feeling tiny around the towering round columns and the red brick stone, I didn’t know where to look-- cars driven decidedly, security men in their grey outfits, women with formal coats on their sari’s (like a lawyers uniform but they were not actually lawyers--Why would there be lawyers in parliament?) and clusters of reporters with their camera and mic, interviewing well dressed leaders-- distinguished looking with their crisp kurtas, slow speaking and charismatic camera presence. I wanted to look everywhere, at once, soak in everything-- I had 60 seconds to walk through to the next stage of security-- so I didn’t want to even blink. I had to fight myself to not say ‘Can we wait here, I want to see someone famous!’.
While waiting for my last security check, I had peeked at the garden inside the parliament building. Three statutes -- Nehru, Sardar Patel and someone else in a thinking pose (like the ones near Stanford oval), were huge and It was like “wow where did this come from, never heard or seen these classy statutes ever anywhere on TV or papers!”. The garden was lined with different types of native flowers-- well kept but conservative-- as if mended by a man who learnt from his maali forefathers, passed down from generations. A loud fountain in the center bound together the flowers, lawn and statues.
Back to now.
I am feeling what it feels to have some hormone rush into your system-- a very, very high, high. It started a few minutes ago when walked into the gallery visitors -- faintly circular wooden benches-- “Ma’am can I sit in the front row?” was my ask to security-- front bencher that I am. And they were like, “No”.
Turns out, front rows are reserved for security. There’s a person, whose job is to turn around in his seat -- and watch-- watch me and my bench! She is ordering us now-- fold your passes, don’t cross your legs. NO! Don’t take off your jacket, she just told me, and she’s asking a lady to sit back in her seat.
I look around me. Mostly lower middle class citizens (but these days you can’t say)-- ladies in their colourful sari’s, mismatched colourful sweaters and colourful bright socks in sandals, teenage children, and some men in south indian lungis too. Only the girl next to me is in a blazer and no one else is smiling except me-- I think my excitement is not mirrored by anyone else. “How can you not?” I feel like asking them with my eyebrows raised in the ridiculous eyebrow pose.
THE TV AND THE STAFF
Plastered in the hall are 2 huge screens where LS TV is projected. It is clear that if you’re an MP sitting upto 3 rows behind and 3 people to the side of someone in the camera's eye-- you will be seen on national television.
The TVs are attached to the gallery on the opposite side of me. The gallery is for the media people -- their occupants are obviously very accustomed to being there-- trickling in late, seat slouching and no over excitement. Oh look! There is a foreigner lady in the media section--I am doing a double take on her. Surprised to see a white person in the room.
Right below the media on the ground floor, under the shade of the viewing galleries are the seats for the staff-- they have official parliament ID’s around their necks and a less bored look on their faces-- this is their job! When a minister needs some important information, a chit is sent from these galleries via a peon in elegant headgear, to the minister's seat during a live session.
I got to see such a chit in action. A scribbled note delivered to Nitin Gadkari!
It is 11:00 am and so many things are happening all at once.
Sumitra Mahajan, Madam Speaker, a dignified lady in a yellow sweater covering her sari, enters. All stand up-- something is being chanted “Good morning?”, I don’t know, everyone knows what to do. So normal, that it is happening mechanically, and all have sat down in a few seconds.
I see now that the congress group of MP’s are standing up slowly, and walking to gather near the speakers platform. It is clear this is pre-decided. Barring a couple of fast moving MPs, the others are moving reluctantly and slowly, like teenagers forced to sing on stage and no one wants to be the first. The MP’s are a mixed crowd, including a orange turbaned sardarji, a old muslim man, a MP from north east. Suddenly, one MP shouts aloud, inaugurating the protest: “PM maafi maango!” pumping his hands in the air with the chant and the others are singing after him “maafi maango maafi maango”. The other MPs and the staff, so used to this disruption, are seated motionless with faces showing no emotion.
The speaker has decided to ignore the protesters and continue with the session.
BEHIND THE SCENES
But who is the real leader of this protest? I squint my eyes. What is going on behind the gathering crowd? 4 MP’s are bending over talking to Sonia Gandhi, rather casually. It is clear she is the boss of that side. Her arms are tucked comfortably inside her black shawl-- I suppose she would never be looking at notes or literature. She has no worry on her face. And her face is always turned to her people and never to the rest of the Lok Sabha. I find that odd. Always looking only to her right side, she is in constant touch with Jyotiraditya Scindia, who clearly again, is the 2nd in command. A young(er) man, he seems to have the permission to do as he pleases, because amidst the protests, he is calling out his MP’s and mouthing what meant “you start after this gets over”, directing his people to lead the protest one by one.
The MP’s are shouting mechanically “Prime minister, Sabha mein aao”. Others repeat “sabha mein aao, sabha mein aao”. One of the MP’s is so bored he is slouched over the speaker's desk edge with one hand. The protests are so fabricated and so disruptive.
You can never figure this out on TV.
CAN’T HEAR THE PROCEEDINGS
The proceedings start, Nitin Gadkari rises to answer through his mic, and I cannot hear a single word! The protests are drowning out all the other voices. Then It hits me! THIS is why MP’s wear headphones when LS is in session. No, not for language translation as I originally thought, but the headphones are literally helping them hear the answers and drown out the protest voices. Good thing! What reaches the audience is the voice through the mics and not the sound that reverberates in the sabha hall.
Jyotiraditya Scindia-- as the protests become dull, is again picking out his MPs -- calling them from over this desk and pointing “isske baad tum”. One MP from the north east, is cupping his hands and directing his shout towards Nitin’s mic. He is looking at his neighbouring MP and smiling, pointing with his hands that “I’m directing my voice towards the mike”. So premedicated the protest is and the gravity of the proceedings is so trivialized by the attitude of the congress MP’s that I am now plunging into a sudden sadness. How could they!
It’s 11:17 by now, and I am tired of the noises.
I look to my left and I see movement. My eyes brighten! Who is that? Smriti Irani! She is late and is getting into her middle seat. Oh does she glow! She has a confidence. She has a strength. She has a smile-- I cannot take my eyes off her and I keep staring, waiting, hoping for her to look up and to my side.
I think it’s been 10 minutes. I have this stupid smile across my face. I am realising only now that I have been starting at Smriti for 10 mins, forgetting everything else. She has just turned to talk to the person behind her, and she is briefly scanning the public gallery, and she has caught my eye.
“SAY HI NUPUR” I shout at myself. “WAVE HI. Do it! Now!”, I am screaming in my head. The security lady next to me, and the security man in front of me are both scanning my bench and will not like a sudden movement. I cannot wave. I guess Smiri can take my wide mad smile as a “Hello”.
OUT OF PLACE
I tear myself out of watching Smriti. I have missed the entrance of Shashi Tharoor. He is standing next to Scindia, looking elite and independent. His dress matches his persona-- a shiny green indian suit, stitched to his size, a maroon hanky triangled out of his left chest pocket. His hair is streaked black and white. One side longer than the other. He runs his fingers through his hair and flicks it out of the way, stylishly. He is patting Scindia on his shoulder and speaks to Sonia in a body language unlike the other MP’s-- he is a individual thinker. Looking less a politician, more a scholar.
Suddenly Speaker says, irritated that the proceedings are trivialised, ‘Now please go back to your desks’ in her usual sing-song way. Scindia shouts so loud, there is spit coming out from his mouth ‘IS THIS DEMOCRACY? WE WANT AN APOLOGY’. While he is shouting, another of his senior MP’s shouts along and scindia immediately hushs him with his hands, unapologetically.
CAN I STAY ONE MORE HOUR?
Its 12:00 now. Rajnath Singh has left midway, Nitin is still answering and the security lady asks us to leave-- I don’t want to go! I ask her ‘Can I stay back?’. She says “madame next batch has to come’. I am so reluctant, I am looking here and there for another way to secretly sneak into another bench, to watch the next hour. But it is not a risk I want to take.
I am out into the lawns in a couple of minutes. I feel happy and satisfied. Like you would from a good meal. Oh, there’s Raj Babbar-- speaking to a camera, and giving off the energy of someone who wants to be in the limelight always. I ignore him. I don’t like his politics anyway. I am too much into myself now. I want to soak the moments I just had.
It has taken just about a minute and I am back on the main road. I realise: Exiting the parliament is just as easy, as it is difficult to enter.