Just Like That | Notes on R-Day then & now, the Right & Left at JLF & a wedding
Anecdotes on the thrill of celebrating at the Republic Day parade having changed over time, a fiery debate on the political Left and Right at JLF, and a Delhi wedding.
On January 26, we celebrated Republic Day, as we always do. The highlight of this celebration is the Republic Day Parade down Kartavya Path, earlier called Raj Path. I still recall as a child the excitement this parade used to create. There was no live telecast then, and people would jostle with each other to witness it, queuing up from early in the morning in the winter chill to get a good seat. Relatives from far-off places would arrive to see the parade. Our house used to be full of guests, since my father was a senior officer in the ministry of defence and passes could be arranged.
These were the early years of the Republic, and the date commemorating the adoption of the Constitution of India in 1950 was still a matter of great pride and joy. Prime Minister (PM) Jawaharlal Nehru would arrive with a red rose in his sherwani. Dr Rajendra Prasad would come in the open regal horse carriage from Rashtrapati Bhavan. There were few security hassles, and the leaders would mingle with the people, and sit without a bullet-proof glass shield before them.
Has the celebration of the Republic Day parade become a bit of a ritual now, without the genuine emotions attached to the significance of the day? To some extent, yes, because the landmark promulgation of the Constitution is taken for granted, and most people prefer to watch the parade on TV in the comfort of their homes. But the interest the parade generates is still there. Unlike in the past, when passes to a select few in government were the norm, tickets can now be bought by ordinary citizens. Security restrictions are far more stringent. The President no longer comes in an open horse carriage, but in a bullet-proof car, although the car is escorted by officers on horses from the President’s Body Guard. The PM now is surrounded by a ring of security personnel, and his movements are strictly restricted.
As per established tradition, the President addresses the nation on the eve of Republic Day. When I was press secretary to President Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1992, it was decided that the Rashtrapati ji, instead of reading out his speech, would use a teleprompter so that he could look straight at his audience. In more developed countries, this was standard practice, but it was used by our President for the first time that year. A warm and congenial setting was created, with the President’s favourite books behind him — unlike the blank screen as a backdrop used in the past — to create a personal touch.
The problem was training the President to use the new technology. It proved to be a rather difficult task. Shankar Dayal ji was a willing learner, but a poor student. He found it difficult to coordinate looking straight into the camera while simultaneously reading the text from the teleprompter. The rehearsals went on for the whole afternoon, with repeated retakes once the recording began. The President was fully cooperative, and did not lose his cool. Finally, the recording was done, much to everybody’s relief.
The President also hosts an “At Home” in the evening in the Moghul Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Entry is strictly by invitation. It is a short affair, with some delectable tea and snacks. Very few of the invitees get to meet the President or the PM, and the other VVIPs present, because the high dignitaries are sequestered — for security reasons — in an impenetrable separate enclosure, where they can be seen but not approached. In spite of this, I was surprised in my days at the President’s office, at the number of people of eminence, especially from the corporate sector, who would vie to get an invitation. For them, being invited to the “At Home” was a matter of prestige, where they could be seen by people who mattered, and notch up their ranking in the highly hierarchical society of Delhi.
India can be legitimately proud of her Constitution, and celebrate the day when it was adopted. The challenge for the future is to live up to its liberal, democratic and inclusive provisions, not only in letter but also in spirit.
Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), and a Wedding in Delhi
I went to the JLF this year to speak for the final closing debate. This event is much anticipated, because the debate is fiery and hotly contested, and the subject is usually incendiary. This year, it was: The Right and the Left divide can never be bridged. I was speaking against the motion, along with Priyanka Chaturvedi, Member of Parliament (MP), Rajya Sabha, and academic and author, Makarand Paranjape. On the other side were Jawahar Sircar, Trinamool Congress MP, noted thinker and writer Professor Purushottam Agarwal, and Vandana Shiva, one of the most well-known environmental activists in the world. Well-known TV personality, journalist and writer, Vir Sanghvi, was the moderator.
The session, in front of a huge audience, can be watched on YouTube. Do write to say which side you agreed with.
The social highlight of this week in Delhi was the marriage of the son of Akbar “Dumpy” Ahmed, arguably the closest political aide to the late Sanjay Gandhi, and at one time, one of the most powerful politicians in India, and Naina Balsavar, a former Miss India. The wedding reception was at their residence at the very back of the Sainik Farms, not the easiest place to reach. Nevertheless, the glitterati of Delhi was there in full strength. The food, in particular, was spectacular. Congratulations to the newlyweds!
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal