Politically-correct classroom

Business Standard, July 30, 2011

MPs and MLAs are getting back to the classroom for crash courses on governance, media-management and other issues.

There are structured courses to prepare surgeons before they enter the operation theatre, for lawyers before they begin their arguments in court and even for actors. But where do our lawmakers go to learn the ropes? More than a few might have learnt the requisite skills at their father?s/mother?s knee, considering the tendency in India to keep Assembly and Parliamentary seats within the family. And whether such skills can be learnt in the confines of a classroom is itself debatable. But there is less doubt about the fact that debates and discussions in the legislature would benefit from becoming deeper, and that governance needs to improve ? two aims PRS Legislative Research and partners Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore have kept in mind while conducting the inaugural sessions of the India Leadership Workshop and India Policy Workshop for groups of MLAs this year.

?The idea is to help MLAs to make more informed decisions,? says CV Madhukar, founder-director of PRS. The three-day workshops, the first of which was held at ISB in January this year, had sessions by experts on current issues such as the Aadhar scheme as well as general sessions like how to work with the bureaucracy and how to handle the media. PRS is looking to reach 500 to 600 MLAs over the next couple of years through these workshops, says Madhukar, a former investment banker.

?We?re planning to hold three more such workshops this financial year,? says ISB Deputy Dean Deepak Chandra. The response, he says, has been encouraging. The MLAs who attended the workshops concur, by and large. ?The workshop was very useful for us, especially the sessions on how to deal with the bureaucracy and how to communicate with the media,? says Arjun D Modhvadia, the Porbandar MLA who was recently appointed Gujarat Congress president. The Gujarat Congress last week organised a special workshop with PRS for its MLAs on the budget. ?It?s a very good initiative and the intentions are commendable but the organisers need to keep upgrading the sessions. The session on how to deal with bureaucrats, for instance, I found very basic,? says Rajpal Singh Shekhawat, the BJP MLA from Jhotwara in Rajasthan.

The idea of stimulating our lawmakers? discussions, however, is not restricted to MLAs. The India Parliamentary Leadership Programme at Yale, co-developed by Ficci, now in its fifth edition, was the result of a desire to expose MPs to the latest thoughts and ideas globally. Under the programme, around a dozen MPs spend a week in Yale?s classrooms, participating in discussions on contemporary issues like the global economic crisis and gender equity. ?We don?t get to do this in India; we?ve sent just 60 MPs to Yale, while China has sent around 25,000 policymakers,? says BJP spokesperson and MP Rajiv Pratap Rudy, one of the 13 participants in this year?s edition.

However, questions on potential conflict of interest arise as the MPs? international travel expenses are borne by Ficci, a lobby group. Baijayant Panda, BJD MP and chairman of the Indo-US Forum of Parliamentarians, sees nothing wrong in it: ?Ficci only bears part of the cost and the involvement is at an arms? length. Moreover, the entire process is transparent ? everything is declared to Parliament beforehand.? Similarly, the costs for the MLAs? workshops were borne by PRS and the business schools, though PRS says this is only because it was the first couple of sessions and MLAs will now have to pay for future sessions.

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