Statistics show that younger members of parliament participate significantly less in the Parliament.
Over the past decade, the arrival, in the Parliament, of a number of young MPs-fresh-faced, well educated, smart at parrying TV sound bites, and savvy about the world at large-raised hopes for a transformation of Indian politics. The hype generated was always overstated, but has gradually given way to muted disappointment. Now, pointed questions are beginning to be asked.
Statistics show that younger MPs participate significantly less in the Parliament, albeit in an atmosphere where the Parliament itself is mostly gridlocked. Even using a cut-off age of fifty, it turns out that those who are older participate in debates 40 per cent more often. The argument, that party hierarchies stifle younger MPs, has some merit, but is contradicted by the poor performance of even someone like Rahul Gandhi, who participated in only one discussion in the 15th Lok Sabha, and asked not a single question.
Even setting aside parliamentary participation, why is it that so few in this cohort are making a name for themselves by proposing new ideas, or even standing up for something (other than toeing their party’s line)? The answer lies in the sharply increased hierarchical nature of all political parties, and the propelling of status quoists, both young and old, into positions of authority, by this structure.
Though India has seen intra-party democracy gradually crumble since the days of Indira Gandhi, the trend of consolidating power at the top of the hierarchy has continued unabated in all parties. Since most parties don’t have internal elections for organizational posts or nominations to contest elections, toeing the hierarchy’s line has become essential to the majority of politicians’ survival, let alone success. Once elected to the Parliament, even would-be mavericks are straitjacketed by the ubiquitous party whip. Generally issued for just about any major debate or vote in the Parliament, defiance of the whip is grounds for disqualification as an MP.
India’s Top-down Diktat Machine
Many such rules and regulations that make it impractical for politicians to speak their mind were instituted as cures for earlier ills, but the law of unintended consequences has ensured that they have led to new ones. For instance, the election rules for the Rajya Sabha, which used to be by secret ballot, were amended in the past decade to deal with allegations of votes being sold by MLAs, who are the electors. Now, the ballot is open and parties issue whips to their MLAs to vote for their candidates, defiance of which leads to the MLA getting disqualified from the assembly. What the change in law has achieved, besides removing MLAs’ choice of whom to vote for, is to incentivize wealthy Rajya Sabha aspirants to deal directly with, and be beholden to, party leaderships instead.
Thus, the party system in India has evolved into a top-down diktat machine, which MPs and MLAs simply don’t dare defy. The only rare exceptions are when they perceive an extremely high level of dissonance with their voters and believe it would be suicidal to not defy their party-for example, on the issue of Telangana. Sadly, no other recent issues, including, for instance, the anti-corruption debate, have inspired much outspokenness. This has led to an increasing number of conformists in the Parliament, with the path to success lying clearly in keeping their opinions to themselves, refraining from taking the lead on big issues and otherwise demonstrating their personal loyalty to their leadership.
Younger MPs are no exception to this, having had to struggle and succeed in exactly the same environment. In fact, many would say that they have an additional burden of conformity, by being largely from political families themselves. Patrick French highlighted this in his 2011 book, India: A Portrait-while just over a quarter of all MPs entered politics through family connections, that figure rose to two-third for those under forty, and a startling 100 per cent for the under-thirties! This undoubtedly contributes to an ambience of homogeneity and resistance to change.
Ironically, despite the rules encouraging conformity, and younger MPs being additionally conditioned for the status quo by their backgrounds, there are some signs that it is this group that is experimenting with stretching some boundaries. Examples include cross-party advocacy on issues like malnutrition, and initiatives supporting fellowships for young graduates to strengthen MPs’ research and staffing.
Even more importantly, outside the glare of spotlights, there is a personal bonhomie among this generation of politicians that cuts across party lines and is reminiscent of an earlier, less polarized era. At the very least, this fosters a certain private candour that cuts through public adherence to party diktats. Perhaps, this holds the promise of future cooperation, which is so crucially missing in this age of coalition politics.
This excerpt was taken with permission from the book ‘Lutyens’ Maverick: Ground realities, Hard choices and Tomorrow’s India’ by Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda. It was published by Rupa Publications India in 2019.