My ode to Old Parliament’s Central Hall

My most joyous times in Parliament have been with you. Thank you for the friendships, the bonds and the decency you made space for

It’s time to say goodbye to you, Central Hall — Indian Parliament’s most sociable, memorable space. I will miss you.

Sandwiched between the two Houses — the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha — you, along with the rest of the magnificent Parliament building, were born in 1927. After originally dressing you up as a library for two decades, they transformed you into the Constituent Assembly hall in 1946. You are, without doubt, the most hallowed hall in the nation. You have hosted joint sittings of both Houses, addresses by the President after a general election and the opening ceremony for new sessions.

When Parliament is in session, you, my dearest Central Hall, have been the hub for the 543 members of Lok Sabha and 245 members of Rajya Sabha. Spouses, parents and children of current lawmakers drop by for occasional visits. Former Members of Parliament are always welcome. Occasionally, a chief minister pops in to say “hi”. As a Parliamentarian, I have found no better partner for fellowship, socialising, sharing thoughts and even breaking barriers. You have helped overcome ideological differences, aided in off-the-record chats, sharing perspectives and, of course, the most popular item you’ve always served — gossip. The only witnesses to these conversations, and now memories, were the reverse-bladed vintage pedestal fans which whirled as silent spectators.

This is my ode to my beloved Central Hall.

You have always been an inviting, expansive space, smartly turned out in polished wood. And you’ve always had your own idea of time. Walk in to meet you at 10 in the morning but your clock says it’s dawn. Sauntering in at 10:30 for a quick coffee one would still qualify as an “early bird”.

Very few MPs visit you every morning before the day’s session begins. However, our favourite Hall is almost houseful when both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are adjourned simultaneously for an hour or so. Just the right opportunity for members to catch up and share political or personal news with each other — distributing mithai for the births of grandchildren, handing out wedding cards, conveying condolences, updating phone books and more.

Something about you, Central Hall, always reminds me of a large college canteen. Drop the put-ons, unshackle one’s thoughts and, just as it didn’t matter who was majoring in English or Economics, in Parliament’s most magical space too, you created bonds to last a lifetime.

When Parliament is not in session you must be thoroughly bored. No chatter, no coffee, no cacophony. All the action and the animated discussions take place only for about 70–75 days every year. Pity. The

unwritten maxim overriding all the conversations in your presence is not to make private parleys public. Just like “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, the same stands true with you: “What Happens in Central Hall, Stays in Central Hall”. Almost always.

You have had your favourites. One such parliamentarian was Arun Jaitley. He was a pillar, both of Parliament and Central Hall. In addition to being the chief charioteer at the midnight promulgation of the major (but hurriedly and poorly executed) GST reform in 2017, he had regular informal meet-ups in your precincts. These are now part of folklore. Members across the ideological divide and senior journalists who had rare-as-gold-dust passes (journalists have been banned from entering Central Hall for the last few years) would listen to the articulate lawyer-turned-politician. From simplifying legal jargon in Bills to tips on where to acquire the best Kashmiri shawls; from “spinning” his party out of awkward reportage to masala gossip, Mr J was, well, classic Mr J. In my first two terms in Parliament, if you ask me to name one person who personified Parliament, it would be Arun Jaitley.

Another member whose nature and stature made him a charmer was Ahmed bhai — Ahmed Patel or just AP. Being the political secretary to the Congress president, he knew how to work the phones outside Parliament, and how to win friends and influence people inside it. Oratory was not his core skill, but he was very much the master of the engine room. Ahmed bhai was easy to access, strategically low profile and politically astute. From 2004 to 2014, he fired on all cylinders. Even after 2014, when he was in the Opposition, he had an easy way of building bridges across party lines, whether it was over chai in Central Hall or over savoury snacks at his bungalow at 23, Mother Teresa Crescent. I am sure you miss them both dearly — Mr J and AP.

Nostalgia, they say, is a middle-aged illness. My dearest Central Hall, I have gathered many nuggets from the moments spent at your polished wooden desks. In fact, my most joyous times in Parliament have been with you. It was never about the snacks or the beverages. This was all about fellowship, friendship, bonding and decency.

Before I go across the street to a new address , let me ask you: Have times changed? Tell me, as you always have. Frankly. Has the joie de vivre diminished? Has rivalry between individuals with different ideologies turned to enmity? Do we need to bring back some of that spirit of camaraderie to Parliament? Can the current top leadership of the ruling party learn about that simple virtue called decency inside Parliament? And outside Parliament? Can you request an Arun Jaitley or an Ahmed Patel or a Sushma Swaraj — from the happy place they are in — to send a group message on WhatsApp to the current honchos, giving them a few tips?

Central Hall, don’t look at me blankly. Don’t turn away. Answer me.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, September 15, 2023]