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A body provides free research support to MPs

Hammurabi's Reading List
Hammurabi's Reading List
BiteSize Briefs
  • PRS Legislative Services launched in 2005 to provide free research service to MPs, with the aim of leading to better policymaking, legislation and parliamentary performance
  • It's a not-for-profit, non-partisan outfit, founded by two ex-investment bankers, staffed by a small research team
  • To date, 40% of MPs have regularly used their services
  • Contrary to expectations, these are not younger MPs (in fact, the below 40 have the lowest attendance rate in Parliament), but seasoned parliamentarians in the 50-65 age group


Did I hear right? Two middle-class over-achievers believe the political class, routinely viewed by their peers as venal, grasping and indifferent to the public good, has the capacity and the propensity to seriously engage with policy, and have staked their careers on this conviction. C.V. Madhukar and M.R. Madhavan, one-time investment bankers, each with a string of qualifications from blue-chip educational institutions, have spent the last two years working closely with MPs, a set of actors with whom they had no interaction for most of their lives. And their verdict, in Madhukar's words: "There are enough serious MPs who want to look at issues with an open mind and do the right thing, in the national interest, rather than what suits them politically."

The context is PRS Legislative Services, a not-for-profit organisation launched by the two in September '05, on the premise that providing MPs with good research would lead to better policy and legislation. Institutionally, MPs in India, unlike their counterparts in western democracies, have almost no research support. In the US, there is the Congressional Research Service and in the UK, the Parliamentary Research Service, both generously endowed with public funds. In India, there is only the Parliament library, a vast repository of press clippings and stacks of reports, with no resources to deliver this data to busy MPs in a concise and analytical manner. The need for quality research, meanwhile, is becoming urgent, with the law-making business becoming infinitely more complex and technical in a liberalising and privatising India and demanding expertise across a diverse range of subjects.

What PRS delivers to the doorsteps of 790 members of Parliament is the legislative brief: a neat, clear and precise 4-6 page document, explaining important bills before Parliament, analysing them, putting them in a wider context, providing examples of similar legislation in other countries. It looks deceptively simple, but each takes about a month to prepare, since it involves both desk research and weighing, cross-checking and distilling arguments by the range of groups that have a stake in any new law.

Two years down the road, PRS has found about 300 MPs, nearly 40 per cent of the total strength, using information from these reports to make points in the houses and various committees of Parliament—and quite a few of these users calling back to ask for more. At the last count, it was interacting with about 80 MPs. As a result, the fledgling service, hosted by a Delhi think-tank, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), manned by a small team on a slim budget fuelled by institutional grants and project work, finds itself quite run off its feet when Parliament is in session.

As demand for its services (all free of cost) has grown, PRS has addressed party groups, including senior leaders, on important new bills—especially Opposition parties, who naturally have a greater stake in looking critically at legislative fine print. For those daunted by the 400-page Sachar report, it has whittled them down to three. It has provided customised briefs for MPs across the political spectrum, on hot issues like the Indo-US nuclear deal and staples of parliamentary debate like price rise, inflation and terrorism.

Well aware that the taint of bias would make it hard to gain acceptance across the party spectrum, Madhukar and Madhavan are quick to point out that they are not in the business of advocacy. "We are not concerned with what decisions are finally made, as long as long as they are informed ones," says Madhavan. Bhartruhari Mahtab, a Biju Janata Dal MP (incidentally, one of the top three MPs who spoke most frequently in Parliament in '06), vouches for their neutrality: "They tell you the pros and cons of an issue, but it's a much more neutral viewpoint than you would get in the media, which usually reflects the biases of various stakeholders on the issue." However, every now and then, they do get asked by MPs for tips on how to present their arguments. "We refuse," says Madhukar. "And if two MPs from two parties want information on the same subject, they get the same note, we don't tailor information to suit the party line."

While cagey about naming the MPs they work with, for reasons of confidentiality, the duo highlight an interesting trend: very few of their keener clients are younger MPs—the majority are, in fact, in the 50-65 age group, MPs in the second, third or fourth term rather than first-term ones. This is contrary to public perception, aided by media reports, that younger MPs, especially the western-educated kind, are more interested in policy than older peers from the 'grassroots'. PRS's compilations of vital statistics on the performance, in Parliament, by different age-groups of MPs, also underscore this trend. On average, MPs below the age of 40 have the lowest attendance profile in Parliament and they participate more infrequently in debates than their older peers. (For that matter, the representation of the under-40s in Parliament has declined steadily, from 26 per cent in the first Lok Sabha to only 9 per cent in the 14th.)

J.P. Aggarwal, 53, a Congress Rajya Sabha MP with three Lok Sabha terms behind him, uses the PRS research service and the services of student legislative assistants trained by PRS (as part of a scheme to help MPs and expose students to parliamentary processes). On both counts, he is a satisfied customer. "Your common sense can only help you up to a point. You need research and there is no time for it." Though a ruling party MP, he seems to find it easier to digest sarkari data distilled by PRS—a telling comment on how government presents its data. "Their information on audit reports and audit objections and their statistics on non-compliance with plan targets really helped me make points in consultative committee meetings," he said. "There are a lot of intelligent people in Parliament and if your talking points are not good, you don't make an impact," added Aggarwal frankly.

Clearly, sounding good in Parliament matters to MPs like him, even if it may have no payoff in terms of approval at the constituency level, allotment of party tickets or even media attention, which is focused on high-flyers or on brawls and walkouts. PR guru Dilip Cherian says it matters for two reasons: "One, many older MPs, while they have extremely good knowledge of ground realities, lack perspective on what is happening elsewhere and they want to extend their footprint beyond their constituencies. The other is that when you are a senior MP, you need to be seen as a 'seasoned Parliamentarian', someone with not just a good grasp of issues but a capacity to challenge conventional thinking."

However, political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who heads CPR, says, "We're used to thinking of everything politicians do as being instrumental. But let's give some of them credit for some sense of vocation. Being a second or third term MP does help foster that sense of vocation. " The men behind PRS also feel that while the demand for their services suggests that MPs want to be better informed to look good before their peers and project themselves well, it equally suggests that they want to understand issues in the national interest. Says Madhukar: "If the sincerity of individuals doesn't reflect in the way Parliament functions, that's because institutions have their own rhythms, inter-party dynamics and political posturing comes into play. But if politicians are better informed and political parties articulate more substantive issues in their debates, it will change the language of politics."


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