WITHOUT MEANING ANY offence to our honourable MPs, I have this impression that if one has nothing to do, one should do it in Parliament. Well, it was one of those days when I decided to kill some time in the nation’s hall of gossip, otherwise known as the Central Hall of Parliament. Having watched the sanctum sanctorum of our patchy democracy from up close for over three decades, I must grant every time you find yourself there, you invariably learn something new, gain some fresh insight. Chatting with a few friends over coffee in the Central Hall, Rajiv Shukla, the ever-jolly journalist-turned-Congress MP summoned me to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s office. Since the leader of the Rajya Sabha keeps his door open to all, there is always a large group of print and TV journalists and ex-MPs on a row of chairs lined against the three sides of the wall, while an equal number hang around outside, waiting for a signal from Jaitley’s chief gatekeeper, SP Bhatia, to go in for a word with the minister and exit post-haste. TV sets on the wall relay live proceedings of the two Houses but mostly remain on mute, with Jaitley occasionally shushing everyone to hear an important speaker.
The day I found myself in his office, it happened to be Jaitley’s birthday. It was encouraging that a number of opposition MPs who only a few moments ago had tore into the ruling party’s alleged majoritarian agenda were warmly greeting the minister. A steady stream of visitors, among them BJP leaders from Delhi, others from outside, and a few usual suspects always seen hovering around politicians, came bearing bouquets; some came with prasad from Vaishnodevi and Tirupati. The drill was familiar, but with a recent twist. Jaitley acknowledged the greetings while handing over the bouquets to a factotum, while visitors invariably insisted on selfies with him for posterity.
In between, there were small groups who while wishing the minister presented him with petitions. Like this one from Jalandhar, who brought a chunni from Ma Vaishnodevi and then asked that the GST on rubber chappals be rationalised. To illustrate, the group leader produced a V-shaped chappal, saying while the strap carried a 5 per cent levy, the sole attracted 18 per cent—or was it the other way round? Always quick on the uptake, Jaitley noted down the plaint and promised to have it looked into. They left believing that the needful would be done.
But the multi-tasking minister still found time to answer questions from the assembled media and to discuss with Shukla the likely changes that could be considered in the Triple Talaq bill should the Congress play ball in the Rajya Sabha, and also to clear urgent files put up by the relevant secretaries. And when the crowd finally thinned out, the minister stole a moment to ask a TV journalist about his marital woes, whether he was thinking of formalising his arrangement with the ‘other’, now that his divorce was through. It is amazing how he is able to retain so much information, serious and unserious, official and unofficial. And finally, one is curious about the hundreds of bouquets ministers get on such occasions—where they finally end up, especially when most ministers have dedicated flower gardens in their bungalows in Lutyens’ zone.
INITIALLY, BJP PRESIDENT Amit Shah cut a forbidding figure, unsmiling and curt, especially for the Delhi-based media. The image was not wholly unwarranted. New to the capital and its peculiar ways, Shah generally kept to himself, interacting with a few party leaders and a handful of media persons with Gujarati roots. But more than three years later, he seems to have shed his diffidence, ready to mingle on his terms with the best and the worst from the media. Now a duly sworn-in member of the Rajya Sabha, having been elected from his home state, Gujarat, Shah the other day took the large media corps in Parliament by surprise when he agreed to spend time with them, but with a caveat: while he would answer every question of theirs, when he said ‘off-the-record’, he expected it to remain off-the-record.
And, then, for over an hour, friendly and not-so-friendly journalists shot questions at him, and he fielded them all with aplomb, not hesitating to dispatch for six even those which the hostile questioners believed were unplayable googlies. Clearly, in a short span of time Shah has mastered the ways political Delhi works. After a series of electoral wins, there is a renewed confidence. Now it seems to be a cinch getting round difficult journalists who wear their anti-BJPism on their sleeves.