Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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A new dress code for British MPs, Modi's Israel visit and the GST rollout

WHAT CONSTITUTES dressing appropriately? I don’t think this question has any clear, straightforward answer, particularly in an age where informality and casualness have become the defining hallmarks of style. It was much easier in an earlier age when propriety was rigidly defined and personal comfort discounted. People wore exactly what was expected and there was no scope—or at least very little—for deviation.

Last week, in a landmark ruling, the Speaker of Britain’s House of Commons permitted a backbench Member of Parliament wearing a jacket and an open-collar shirt to participate in the proceedings. Hitherto, by convention and an earlier speaker’s ruling, gentlemen MPs had to wear a tie to participate in the debates. The Speaker, John Bercow, now ruled: “The general expectation is that members should dress in business-like attire. So far… as a member arrives in the House in business- like attire the question of whether the member is wearing a tie is not absolutely front and centre stage.”

The decision, predictably, has had a mixed response. In many business circles, particularly in the IT industry, business attire often stretched the definition of informality to an extreme. Indeed, in many circles, except perhaps banking, a tie is regarded as an oddity. In my club in London, the tie was obligatory at all times, except during the height of summer when the secretary issued a ‘Planter’s Order’ whereby you could take off your jacket. Now, there is a bar where members can drink without a tie. And on weekends, beginning 5 pm on a Friday, casual wear is permitted. For some inexplicable reason, the sanction does not extend to denim jeans.

In India, dress rules have progressively become more relaxed. Clubs still keep up appearances, but, overall, except on ceremonial occasions, the dress code has evaporated. I regret its passing, not least because all those ties I have accumulated over the years don’t get an airing.

BY THE TIME this Diary is published, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have undertaken his three-day visit to Israel, the first by an Indian Prime Minister. Reams will have been written about its larger diplomatic significance and its symbolic importance. To me, what is important is that the visit marks a kind of civilisational-cum- political discovery of two ancient civilisations, both grappling with the tensions of modern politics. The way this relationship will evolve is still uncertain, but I am sure that properly nurtured, there will be huge spin-offs for both countries.

Israel desperately needs friends and allies in a world where it is encircled by neighbours, some of whom are anxious to ensure its total destruction. On its part, India could do with the support and commitment from a country whose real boundaries go beyond a land mass and embraces an entire community. The Jewish community in turn can potentially provide India an access to corridors of power all over the Western world, far beyond the borders of Israel. This is not to mention the access to cutting edge technology, military hardware and financial acumen. Properly handled, this relationship can be a force for the good in the world.

I hope the day is not too far off when we can envisage a Jerusalem- Delhi-Tokyo axis.

THE CEREMONY IN the Central Hall of Parliament in the late hours of June 30th to mark the beginning of the Goods and Services Tax may not be as momentous as the one on the night of August 14th, 1947. However, it was only befitting that the Central Hall was put to some appropriate use—other than the President of India’s ceremonial address each year.

Whether the GST matches up to expectations of forging a single market for India is still uncertain. It is likely to be a work-in-progress for a few more years. However, what was reassuring was the fact that the Centre and all the states of the Union could sit at a negotiating table and pool their sovereign powers. Maybe there has been some erosion in the federal structure, but there is the comforting awareness that the GST will stabilise tax rates and insulate these from arbitrary shifts. This stability will add to the ease of doing business, even as it lowers the importance of the Union Budget.

The Congress and a few of its allies needlessly boycotted the event. Among the objections was the suggestion that the Central Hall was too sacred a venue for it. That struck me as odd, since most of the year the Central Hall is used by MPs as a canteen. Isn’t that desecration?