Uthara Ganesh, 22, always thought being an MP in India was all about making speeches and winning electoral battles. Until she decided to work with one.
Her mindset underwent a stark change once she landed up an 11-month fellowship to work with Kalikesh Singh Deo, MP from Bolangir in Orissa. The programme was conceptualised by New Delhi-based organisation PRS Legislative Research (www.prsindia.org)
"Our idea of politicians is very hazy. We often mix policy and politics, but I realised the deep difference only when I experienced this programme," said Ganesh, a sociology student.
"Just like other youth of my age, I always had this opinion of dealing with social and civic problems through college debates and papers. I finally decided to get a hang of what policy making and being a parliamentarian is all about," Ganesh said.
PRS Legislative Research's programme, called Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellowship, is gaining popularity among those who are concerned about public life and want to contribute in some way.
"We already have over 1,000 applications for this year's fellowship and application submission closes March 20," C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS, said.
Deo observed a similar practice on his visit to the US in 2009. He saw Senator John Kerry being assisted in briefings by young interns.
The parliamentarians feel the initiative will add quality to their work.
"Having legislative assistants helps MPs with parliamentary research which they can't do. And at the same time the LAMPs get a first-hand experience on policy making at the constituency level," Deo said.
Apart from helping MPs in background research, the LAMP fellows help them source statistics and information and assist them in day-to-day affairs during parliament sessions.
"It is a very positive move to have young minds accompanying parliamentarians in their day-to-day work. When we talk about change in our political system, this is how we can witness it," N.K. Singh, Janata Dal-United MP from the Rajya Sabha, said.
"The quality of research work which the legislative assistants provide us is exemplary. It also gives the MP a sense of satisfaction for helping a youngster understand parliamentary affairs," said Singh, who is being assisted by Aparajita Bharti, a 21-year-old graduate of business studies.
For Bharti, the fellowship has been a life-altering move. "I think I can openly say that to be an MP in India is a thankless job. He is representing over a million citizens," Bharti said.
PRS conducted two pilot programmes in 2007 and 2008 in which a few MPs were provided research assistants. The minimum educational qualification required to be an MP's assistant is graduation. The candidate has to fill an online application form available on the PRS website, that is followed by an interview.
A selected intern is paid Rs.12,000 per month as fellowship and an additional Rs.3,000 for other expenses.
The year 2010 was uncertain for the legislative assistants because of disruptions over the opposition's demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the 2G spectrum scam.
"We, as youngsters, wanted to witness the smooth functioning of parliament. To see it being adjourned every day was not a good sign for democracy," admitted Bharti.