About a decade ago, I remember a senior politician - who shall be nameless, but can fairly be described as an enthusiastic eater - telling people he was going to fast over some then current political issue. On being asked for how long, he answered: "Between lunch and dinner." He was, as it happened, completely serious.
Fasts are now farce. Political parties seem to be competing to degrade the notion of protest fasts. When photos emerged of Congress leaders stuffing themselves with chhola-bhatura just before sitting down to a fast protesting atrocities against Dalits, you'd think a new low had been achieved. (Though, as anyone covering Delhi politics could tell you, the hefty breakfast before a fast has long been an important part of the politicians' arsenal.) Yet, as demonetization proved, the BJP's mistakes are always of a different magnitude from the Congress, and so it has proved with its recent fast in defence of parliamentary process.
First of all, did nobody notice that the BJP had picked a day for a fast on which the Prime Minister was due to travel to Chennai for the DefExpo? Naturally, any such official programme includes breaks for snacks, and the schedule is released in advance. Thus, publicity for the fast was undermined, as people passed the schedule around social media; naturally, the official announcement - some variation on "no, guys, that's an old schedule, trust us the Prime Minister isn't eating today" - didn't have enough time to make an impact. And, of course, anyone could have predicted that a visit by Modi to Chennai - where he is currently epically unpopular - would have resulted in the sort of protests that grab headlines and attention when the real focus should be on the fact that the Prime Minister is skipping lunch in order to preserve democracy.
Photo of Congress leaders tucking into chhole bhature before a fast
Given that fasts have thus managed to, within a week, humiliate both the ruling party and the major opposition, it might be a good idea for all of our politicians to quietly get together and agree: no more fasts. All a fast actually does, in fact, is remind Indians exactly how distant our politicians are from Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhi-ji
underwent one of his fasts unto death, it was for something consequential, something that you know he believed in, and it was a genuine form of pressure on an unfriendly government. It was the instrument of someone with no legal power but enormous moral stature: a declaration that on this issue, I care enough to risk my health and even to die.
Today, we have fasts between lunch and dinner, or one-day fasts; one-day fasts? This isn't cricket, the shorter form isn't more exciting. Something that faddish middle-aged people in Defence Colony do for their health cannot be a meaningful political statement. Most infuriatingly, campus protesters have "serial hunger strikes", which is as silly a form of protest as serially holding your breath.
Naturally, therefore, the supposed objective of a fast is therefore demeaned and belittled by this sham protest. Consider the BJP's decision to fast in protest against disruptions of parliament. How insincere is it, given that this is the same party that held up entire sessions of the Lok Sabha protesting against various issues? Do they really think that people in 2018 have no memory at all? And even if we don't, do they think we have no access to Google?
PM Modi led a day-long fast, signalling to the Congress that it was the opposition that should take the blame for the recent parliament washout (File photo)
Even if we set the party's past behaviour aside - for, after all, history only really began on May 16, 2014, with the accession of Narendra Modi - for the BJP to fast on behalf of parliamentary propriety is like wolves fasting for vegetarianism. Few governments have done more to undermine parliament than this one. It has certified bills such as the Aadhaar legislation as money bills, in defiance of precedent or simple logic, just to avoid debates in the Rajya Sabha. In some cases, bills are deemed to have been returned by the Rajya Sabha even though they have not been the subject of discussion in that house. This government passed its budget, the centrepiece of an entire session of parliament and surely the most crucial bit of law-making in the year, in 18 minutes - without even an attempt at a debate. The Speaker used the "guillotine", a method of shutting off discussion, to ensure that one-third of ministry and department allocations weren't debated either. And remember this was a Finance Bill that, among other things, massively increased the amount we pay our MPs, and retrospectively legalised four decades of foreign funding to Indian political parties. Surely more than 18 minutes of parliamentary time was called for?
Most shockingly, for the last few weeks of parliament, it was adjourned after a few minutes every day essentially to avoid the possibility of a no-confidence motion being admitted. Can you imagine the implications of this? The precedent it sets? Thanks to this, one day a government without a majority may be able to use its control of the Lok Sabha agenda to simply avoid a vote on its numbers. So who precisely is the BJP protesting in its fast? Itself? Truly, we have reached Congress-mukt Bharat, if the worst political behaviour the BJP can find to oppose is its own.
Two BJP MLAs were found snacking on sandwiches and chips as party leaders and cadres led by PM Modi observed a day's fast yesterday
Fasts, as I said, are now farce. No politician has ever gained credibility from fasting in recent decades because nobody believes they would ever actually put their health or their lives on the line. How insulated are our politicians from what we think of them, if they believe that anyone is impressed by someone skipping lunch? If they think that putting out a tweet or a Facebook status update about a fast convinces even one voter that the politician cares about the issue at hand? Listen, politicians: Nobody wants you to stop eating. Have breakfast. Have two. Fill yourselves up. But then get in a full day working on the country's problems. That's what everyone wants and needs, not publicity photos of you skipping lunch.(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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