Non Argumentative Indians

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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If you expect youngsters in Parliament to rejuvenate Indian democracy, prepare for disappointment. Their record so far offers no inspiration.

We are a nation of young people. Among Indian voters, 70 per cent are under 40 years old. Now that should make a fit case for more Members of Parliament (MPs) who represent this age group. Unless, of course, you decide to look at the performance of under-40 politicians already in Parliament.

The Lok Sabha’s monsoon session has just begun with the usual disruptions and adjournments inflicted by the opposition, which is going full throttle against the rise in prices of fuel and other commodities. By plan, they also intend to corner the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, alleged misuse of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna’s failure to defend the Union home secretary on Pakistani soil.

Going by the past record of young MPs, don’t expect much from this quarter on any of these issues, though. According to an analysis of the proceedings of the current Lok Sabha by PRS Legislative Research, MPs who are 40 or younger are not as active in the House as they appear outside. The Lok Sabha attendance of MPs in the 25-40 age group is lower than average, they ask fewer questions and participate poorly in debates.

The Congress, which sent the largest number of young MPs to the Lok Sabha, also tops the list of such MPs with an unimpressive parliamentary record. Rahul Gandhi, the party’s general secretary and its biggest youth icon, hasn’t spoken in Parliament even once in any debate after the current House was elected in mid 2009, nor posed any questions to any minister. A junior minister close to Rahul Gandhi says it is naïve to expect him to ask questions in Parliament. “He deliberately keeps a low profile. If he asks a question, ministers will bend over backwards to please him. You can expect Congress MPs to laud everything he says. This kind of situation is best avoided,” he says, adding that Amethi’s 40-year-old representative makes his views on policy issues clear in his public meetings and other such interactions. He cites a media report on an exchange of letters between him and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The PM’s letters to Rahul Gandhi addressed issues that the latter had raised with him, ranging from climate change to the management of water resources to the spread of Aids in India.

But there are others in Rahul Gandhi’s team who don’t voice themselves much in Parliament either. Both Congress secretaries Jitendra Singh and Meenakshi Natrajan, who work closely with him, have nothing to write home about on their participation is parliamentary proceedings or law making. Singh, who is also the party’s secretary in-charge of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), has so far participated in only two debates and asked no questions of any ministry. Natrajan, who won a first-attempt seat on a Congress ticket from the BJP stronghold of Mandsour, Madhya Pradesh, has taken part in just three debates and posed five questions. And she is the secretary in-charge of the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI).

Ironically, both students’ bodies have a role in Rahul Gandhi’s grand plan of galvanising India’s youth for national purposes—and, of course, for everlasting Congress dominance of Indian democracy. The two outfits’ programmes highlight the need for Indian youth to participate in politics, but the MPs incharge of these programmes may not be setting terrific examples on what to do once a youngster gets a Parliament seat.

Take the case of Ashok Tanwar, another Gandhi confidant and former IYC president. An MP from Sirsa, Haryana, Tanwar rose to political prominence within the Congress’ youth wing while he was still at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. But, once elected to the Lok Sabha last year, he seems to have all but shed his alma mater’s campus culture of active and fiery debates on every issue under the sun. He has not spoken up in any Lok Sabha debate over the last year and more. Neither has he bothered to ask a question. By contrast, the average MP so far has asked 62 questions in this Lok Sabha and taken part in 8.6 debates. 

Tanwar is a first generation politician and first-time MP. But if you expect his post-graduate education to make up for that, remember that degree holders have not exactly shone in Parliament. His party colleague Nilesh Narayan Rane is a doctorate, but is yet to make his debut speech in Parliament (to his credit, though, he has posed over 100 questions).

But then, you may ask, why look only at the Congress? The likes of Feroze Varun Gandhi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who has posed 250 questions, and Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who has asked 295, make up for the likes of Tanwar and Natrajan. But on debates, their record is no better. The fiery Varun Gandhi, who ran an electoral campaign that was not very parliamentary, has spoken only once in a debate since his victory from Pilibhit. His being a fifth generation politician from the Nehru-Gandhi clan doesn’t appear to enhance his capacity for reasoned argument.

Like Varun, Shruti Chaudhary also belongs to a family of politicians. Her grandfather Bansi Lal was Chief Minister of Haryana thrice and ran the Union ministries of railways and defence. She inherited Lal’s political legacy after the death of her father, a Haryana cabinet minister, in a 2005 helicopter crash. Chaudhary, however, has restrained herself to speaking just twice in Parliament: on the need for a manned railway crossing at a particular point in her constituency.

Another young MP is the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav. His family may have been accused by ex-party bigwig Amar Singh of running a socialist party like a family enterprise, but Akhilesh’s own conduct in the House is neither very sociable nor enterprising. The only time he spoke, more than a year ago, it was on a demand for the six-laning of a road.

So much for youngsters talking about India’s Big Picture Future. Many young MPs, says MR Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, are unclear of their legislative role. “Local issues are a corporator’s job, not an MP’s,” he says, “One of the most important functions of an MP is to be a law maker—to legislate.” 

A Union minister blames it on schemes like MPLADS, which drag MPs into localised matters as trivial as having hand pumps installed. “Even attendance figures are misleading,” adds the minister, “Many land up in the House just to look for ministers and hand over requests pertaining to their constituencies.”

Few of these young MPs ever address all-India concerns, observes Madhavan. “Unlike in America, where voters go back to every word spoken by Senators on every key issue, contestants in elections here [in India] are elected for a combination of caste, region and other factors,” he adds, “Performing well in Parliament does not guarantee a win. But there is no evidence to show that by doing so you will lose an election.” It’s your job anyway.