If the line at the head of this article reminds the reader of The Importance of Being Earnest, the association would only be natural. But what has made me use it is not the title of Oscar Wilde's famous play. It is an article written exactly half a century ago, in 1965, for The Statesman by the then young columnist, Inder Malhotra. He called his piece, "The Importance of Being Jaisukhlal Hathi".
Few, even in the Congress, would remember the Gujarati of that name who had been a member of the constituent assembly, then Congress member of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, a Union minister under the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and was, when that article appeared, a minister under the prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
The age of foundational ideals had given over and with his post-1965 war popularity at an unprecedented high, Shastri seemed to have inaugurated a new age of high minded realism. I do not have the article with me but if I recall its thrust aright, Malhotra wrote to say that the country's first post-Nehru prime minister needed steady hands, not brilliant minds, reliable men and women to serve as self-effacing, industrious ministers who would diligently study files and briefs, ably answer questions in Parliament, be of comfort to the state even if a bit of a bore, perhaps, to the Opposition.
I remembered the good and honest Hathi saheb while attending a public meeting organized by the Triplicane Cultural Academy last month in Chennai. The theme was the changing role of parliamentarians. An academic (Sudarshan Padmanabhan), a distinguished civil servant (the former chief election commissioner, N. Gopalaswami) and a politician (the former deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Rahman Khan) spoke well and instructively. The following five broad disappointments with members of parliament emerged in the discussion:
1. Obstructing, not facilitating, the business of the House.
2. Not maintaining, much less raising, standards of debate.
3. Not speaking their minds.
4. Supporting or opposing the government routinely.
5. Being unable to help, in their daily struggles, the people of their constituencies.
As I was listening to these observations, the figure of Jaisukhlal Hathi kept coming to my mind.
Hathi saheb could have never ever dreamed of disrupting the proceedings of the House, even if he had been an Opposition MP. He would have done well by the even tenor of legislative discussions. He would, in other words, have been part of the ballast of the Treasury benches, adding to that vessel's stabilizing tonnage, preventing it from being rocked by democratic gales. He would have been part of all that makes a liner cruise. And he would have tried his best to give as much attention as possible to those who voted for him.
What of half a century later, today?
I am not sure, but Inder Malhotra might well write an article today titled, "The Importance of not being Jaisukhlal Hathi". The only snag being that few would understand the allusion.
The question, "Jai... who?" would imperil the article. And the counter-point that needs to be made would be lost.
Sound, reliable, steady on the line, eager-to-not-go-wrong, not-to-let-the team-down ministers are today the rule. Brilliance can be a disqualification, mediocrity a merit. The minister who works without attracting attention is a strength, no doubt, to the captain on deck, to the prime minister in Parliament.
No minister would want to speak his or her mind in the cabinet today. That would be too risky. Better silent than sorry. Collective responsibility today means collective resonating.
This of course is not a BJP thing alone. No MP, whether of the ruling alliance or the Opposition, shows anything like independence of mind. If they have that, as I am sure they do, they choose to keep it chained.
And so Jaisukhlal Hathi is once again important, as an example of what ministers and MPs today should not be. But since no one will quite understand the reference to the good Gujarati, who is the counter Hathi saheb who can be cited? Who is the non-Hathisaheb we can turn to ?
A more unHathi-like Congressman cannot be imagined than the hon'ble member for Thiruvananthapuram. Another Congress MP of those years, long since forgotten, Savitri Nigam once mixing up the phrase, once spoke of the importance of 'gab of gift'. Master of the spoken word, revelling in public attention, Tharoor turns mikes and lights to himself almost by instinct. He is, to other politicians' chagrin, sought after even when he is under the shadow of personal crises. "How?" they ask, "can someone who has lived abroad for years, nursed ambitions of becoming secretary general of the United Nations, is essentially a columnist, author and a university lecture-circuit 'type', suddenly parajump onto our politics, get an 'MP ticket' and even become a minister?" So runs the resentment. That Tharoor has a very good opinion of himself does not help him. But it galls others the more.
Perhaps it is because he has been away from Indian politics that he has become what an MP was envisaged by the framers of our Constitution to be - an elected representative of the people, who brings to legislative work a sense of the national weal, the regional good and the local 'touch' beyond party blinkers.
Our Constitution makes no mention of political parties. (Political parties have come to figure in it only tangentially through the Tenth Schedule, introduced by the 52nd amendment to curb defections). As far as the main 'run' of the Constitution is concerned, the entire Lok Sabha could consist wholly of non-party independent MPs elected by a simple majority, any Indian citizen, above 25 years of age, to be its leader and thereby, India's prime minister.
An MP is, essentially, an MP, not a Congress MP or Bharatiya Janata Party MP. True, each parliamentary party has a whip. But is an MP's party affiliation an unbreachable contract ? No, the Tenth Schedule provides for an MP to vote as per his or her conscience, provided the prior permission of the party has been obtained or a post-facto condonation. How many MPs would today seek such a permission or condonation? And how many party leaders would give that latitude? They ought to know that an MP is oath-bound only to bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, not to any other entity.
I can imagine Shashi Tharoor seeking such a permission. And if he were to, he would not be doing something blasphemous. He would be acting within the Constitution. But he would need to take care to see that the Congress's consequential rebuff does not land him in a BJP embrace. Had even one BJP MP spoken against ghar wapsi, the re-naming of Aurangzeb Road, the ban on meat, the attempted manipulations of autonomous institutions, the murder of respected dissenters, the image of the National Democratic Alliance would have had some redemption, some change. Likewise, if in United Progressive Alliance times, even one Congress MP had spoken in Parliament, in Feroze Gandhi style, against high-ranking corruption, its fate in the 2014 elections may have been different.
For an Opposition MP to have and to exercise the freedom to appreciate a good thing done by the government and for a ruling party MP to speak and vote against the party line is not just legitimate parliamentary practice, it is the very essence of parliamentary democracy. Shashi Tharoor, from the ranks of the Congress has tried to do that; there is not one BJP MP who has matched him.
Blind conformism is not loyalty, nor independent thinking,dissent. There is more than ordinary importance in being what quite often, and with much discomfiture to himself, Shashi Tharoor, MP tries to be.