High hopes,low returns

India, with 65 per cent of its population below the age of 35, expected the young MPs to take the country beyond the cynical political culture of the day. But they have failed to live up to the expectations

The role that the youth plays in our country’s politics has been the subject of a spirited debate for some time. This debate gains traction in the public space as elections get closer. Stories on youth engagement in politics start doing the rounds, experts on television debates refer to our country’s untapped demographic dividend and psephologists point out that in spite of candlelight marches and social media activism the youth in our country are not turning up to vote.

A 2008 study by the Centre for Developing Societies found that today’s youth are actively interested in political participation. The 2012 State of the Urban Youth India report by UN Habitat and IRIS Knowledge Foundation found that interest in politics is confined to young urban men. The report has also pointed out that while urban youth is politically-oriented, it is still not politically very active and a few steps away from becoming an active political community. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s recent remarks about “government of the youth in 2014”, has added to this debate. His remarks, coupled with the debate around youth and politics, raise an important question about the contribution made by young MPs in the functioning of Parliament.

There is no clear cut criterion for identifying an elected representative as a young Member of Parliament. Is an MP considered young because he is significantly younger than other MPs and political leaders, or is he considered young because he falls within a particular age group? For example, the draft National Youth Policy identifies youth as falling within the age group of 16 to 30 years. If we go by this definition, the number of MPs in the current Lok Sabha would be very less. For ease of analysis, let’s assume that an MP that falls within the age group of 25 to 40 years is a young MP. Going by this assumption, over the last 60 years there has been a noticeable shift in the age profile of MPs in the Lok Sabha. Despite the churn after every general election, the Lok Sabha has been progressively getting older. In the first Lok Sabha which started functioning in 1952, there were no MPs over the age of 70. In the current Lok Sabha, this number stands at seven per cent. Similarly, the number of MPs older than 56 years of age in 1952 was 20 per cent; this has increased to 43 per cent after the 2009 general election. The first two Lok Sabhas were much younger. MPs in the age group of 25 to 40 constituted 26 per cent of the first Lok Sabha and 31 per cent of the second Lok Sabha. This percentage of young MPs has fallen to 14 per cent in the current Lok Sabha, which completes its term next year.

There is no set job description about the role of MPs. The Constitution entrusts them with the responsibility of being law-makers and re-election considerations requires them to actively engage in problem solving for their constituents and the development of their constituencies. While it is difficult to arrive at an empirical measure of the work done by young MPs in their constituencies, their contribution as legislators can be measured on the basis of their attendance in Parliament, the regularity with which they participated in debates in the House and the number of questions they asked ministers to keep the Government accountable.

Parliament requires MPs to sign an attendance register when it is in session. This enables payment of daily allowance to MPs for attending the parliamentary session. The figures compiled from these registers are publicly available. And while signing the attendance register is not conclusive proof of whether an MP attended or absented from Parliament, it is one of the parameters to gauge the seriousness of MPs with respect to participating in parliamentary proceedings. In this Lok Sabha, the national average of MPs attendance is 77 per cent. The attendance of young MPs does not compare well with the national average, with just 45 per cent of young MPs attending Parliament.

The idea behind a participative and deliberative democracy is that MPs discuss and debate important legislative and policy issues in Parliament. This strengthens the legislative process and enables different viewpoints to be heard and discussed in the House. Somnath Chatterjee, the Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha, in his memoirs remarked that interventions in Parliament should be focused, supported by facts and figures, throw light on issues being discussed and be guided by public interest. While it is difficult to analyse whether debates in the Lok Sabha met these standards, a simple quantitative analysis shows that, Lok Sabha MPs on average participated in approximately 36 debates since 2009. However the average debate participation of young MPs shows that they participated in only 25 debates. In comparison, their older colleagues in the age group of 56 to 70 years participated in 38 debates. This is not a new trend. Even in the 14th Lok Sabha, participation of young MPs in Lok Sabha debates was much less as compared to their older colleagues.

Besides participating in debates in the Lok Sabha, MPs can also ask questions to ministers with respect to

the functioning of their ministries. These questions can be of two types, starred and unstarred; ministers are required to answer starred questions orally in the House and then MPs can ask them follow-up questions based on their responses. Unstarred questions only require written replies from the ministers. Not all questions that are asked by MPs are answered. Parliamentary procedure provides a lottery system on the basis of which 20 starred and 250 unstarred questions are answered in a single day in Parliament. Young MPs perform much better when

it comes to using the parliamentary mechanism of asking questions to ministers to ensure that a check is kept on the Government’s functioning. On average Lok Sabha MPs asked 281 questions. In comparison, young MPs on average sought responses from ministers to 316 questions on various issues related to the Union Government’s functioning.

These facts and figures about the participation of young MPs in Lok Sabha proceedings seem to indicate that they have not been able to discharge their responsibilities as effective legislators. While that may be true to an extent, there are systemic issues that need to be addressed before criticising young MPs and attributing them with all the blame.

The majority of young MPs in the current Lok Sabha have no prior legislative experience. They are first-time MPs and have never been exposed to the procedures and working of a legislature. While they may have held positions of responsibility within their political parties, this is their first experience in deliberating on legislative and policy issues that impact the entire country. They are surrounded by experienced politicians who have in-depth knowledge of parliamentary procedures and understand the intricacies of government functioning.

Other than a short training programme to acquaint them with the basics of parliamentary procedure, they do not receive any formal support which would help them on a day-to-day basis. There is no provision for an office and no access to dedicated research staff that can help them understand technicalities of law and different policy options that they are required to debate. While they may have educational expertise in specific areas, when they get elected to Parliament they are expected to have an understanding of most legal and technical issues under the sun. There is no support that they can lean on to tackle the mountain of paperwork that gets delivered to

the House every morning when Parliament is in session. If this were not enough, as elected representatives they are supposed to make time to cater to the demands of their constituents and their political parties. Since young MPs work under such constraints, both ruling and Opposition parties do not regularly reach out to them to represent the parties’ viewpoint when important debates are taking place in Parliament.

Currently, most political parties in India do not have specialised research units which young MPs can access to understand issues and the party’s stand on these issues. The net result is that the young MPs spend the first couple of years of their term finding their feet as legislators. By the time they figure out the parliamentary system, their term comes to an end.

Most developed democracies have institutionalised mechanisms for supporting MPs. Young MPs are provided with opportunities of shadowing experienced MPs so as to understand the nuances of the parliamentary system. MPs are provided with office space, ample staff and budgets to cater to their information needs and strengthen their hands, so that they can keep up with their role as legislators and elected representatives. While figures will not indicate, there have been numerous occasions in the 15th Lok Sabha when young MPs have made valuable contributions on important Bills being debated in the House. If we want to leverage the ideas, energy and enthusiasm of our young MPs we will have to ensure that we put systems in place so that they have the necessary support required for performing their duties as legislators.  Failing to do so, would result in a fall in the participation and quality of debate in Parliament, and would directly impact the lives of every Indian citizen.