Over the past decade, the arrival in 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 Parliament, albeit in an atmosphere where Parliament itself is mostly gridlocked. Even using a cut-off age of 50, 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 (more on this later), but is contradicted by the poor performance of even someone like Rahul Gandhi, who has participated in only one discussion in this 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 status quoists, both young and old, who this structure propels into positions of authority.
Though India has seen intra-party democracy crumble since the days of Indira Gandhi, the trend of consolidating powers at the top of the hierarchy has continued unabated in all parties. Since most parties don’t have internal elections for organisational posts, or for nominations to contest elections, toeing the hierarchy’s line has become essential to the majority of politicians’ survival, let alone success. Once elected to Parliament, even would-be mavericks are straitjacketed by the ubiquitous party whip. Generally issued for just about any major debate or vote in Parliament, defiance of the whip is grounds for disqualification as an MP.
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 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 remove MLAs’ choice in whom to vote for, is to incentivise 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 increasing numbers of conformists in 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 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, in that while just over a quarter of all MPs entered politics through family connections, that figure rose to two-thirds for those under 40, and a startling 100 per cent for the under-30s! 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 polarised, era. At the very least, this fosters a certain private candour that cuts through public adherence to party diktats. Perhaps that holds the promise of future cooperation so crucially missing in this era of coalition politics.
(Jay Panda, 49, is BJD MP from Kendrapara, Odisha, @Panda_Jay)