July 14, 2014

The TVfication of Parliament?

Something new has arrived in the Lok Sabha. Two large screens allow members to see and hear other speakers during a debate in the House. No longer do MPs have to turn their heads to watch a speaker behind them or crane their necks to catch a glimpse of someone or something. Quite like cricketers watching a re-play on the giant screen in a stadium, MPs can now see the action from a better angle.

To me this completes the audio-visual medium’s capture of politics – or should it be the other way round? I’m being facetious. In fact I’ve written to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to introduce similar screens in the Upper House as well. They will prove to be useful and convenient.

The screens and their need as well as impact have been with me for the past two days. I’ve been preparing to speak in the debate on the Railway Budget. My 30 minutes will come on Tuesday, July 15. (Update as on Sunday, July 20: The discussion on the Railway Budget was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha last week. Now, hope to speak on July 22.) Later in the week, a colleague will speak on the General Budget. He too must be working hard, poring over papers, perusing the finer details to find ideas and hidden gems and pitfalls and discussion points. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing since Friday. As a result, I’ve studiously avoided all television debates on the two Budgets.

My challenge – and the challenge of so many other MPs – will be to say something new and different, innovative and insightful, and something that has not already been said. After all, from a society that was famously slow to react, we have become a polity that is hyper-reactive.

Consider what I mean.Within minutes of the Budget, the first reactions and sound bites came. Within an hour, social media was abuzz with official responses on Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee was among the first to put her thoughts on Facebook. Within two or three hours, after we discussed the Budget speech internally - as was the case with other parties no doubt – there came longer pieces-to-camera and crisper, more meaningful sound bites that articulated considered party positions.

By the evening, there were the prime time, pre-prime time and post-prime time shows. Some of these were replicated the following day, before the media cavalcade moved on to another subject, another controversy, another piece of “breaking news”. By then so much had been said on the Rail Budget and General Budget. By then, if you actually bothered reading the voluminous papers of the Budget, nothing had been said on the Budget.

The parliamentary debate is almost like a delayed climax. It is where thought will go into the Budget discussion. In our media-driven times, it is also a bit of an afterthought.

Or am I being too cynical?

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress