Seeking interns in new political culture

Livemint, June 30, 2010

In June 2009, when he was in Washington, D.C. to meet senator John Kerry, the young parliamentarian Kalikesh Singh Deo made a remarkable observation. Unlike Deo?s frenetic days in India, split between legislative work and countless visitors, Kerry?s schedule was marked by unusual calm.

Just before a meeting, a young girl would quietly step in, brief Kerry on the agenda, and retreat until it was time for another brainstorm. ?It was so swift,? Deo, member of Parliament from Bolangir, Orissa, marvels. ?There were no conflicting voices, no chaos, which is why I think he was able to hold seven or eight crucial meetings in a day. Is it possible here??

When Deo returned, the image of the senator?s assistant stayed with him. As he later realized, she wore a crucial but underplayed designation: legislative assistant. Her work included monitoring pending legislation, conducting research, drafting legislation, and giving advice where needed. ?That is when I felt what we as MPs (member of Parliament) lack: a solid research support staff to…save time and be more efficient,? Deo recalls.

That realization prompted Deo to start hiring legislative assistants, thus far alien to the Indian legislative system, but now starting to thrive with increasing demand from Indian lawmakers.

While MPs such as Deo have hired legislative assistants for research, some research organizations have launched internship programmes to assist MPs. Buoyed by this new interest, the Constitution Club, an elite club for MPs, is now considering setting up a bureau of legislative assistants within its premises.

At the heart of this trend are two concerns: first, to arrest the declining standards of parliamentary debate with informed research; and second, to participate in legislative processes better, as voters make greater demands on their leaders.

?Perhaps we as a country are not so insular any more, with globalization in all spheres,? says M.R. Madhavan, co-founder of PRS Legislative Research, a New-Delhi based not-for-profit, non-partisan research initiative. ?MPs are travelling all over the world and getting influenced by best adopted practices there.?

Last August, Deo, along with Jayant Chaudhary, a Rashtriya Lok Dal MP from Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), and Anurag Singh Thakur, a Bhartiya Janata Party MP from Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh, rolled out the process. ?We spread the word through people we knew and got applications from college students,? Deo says.

dozen interns, all in their final year of college studies and most from law schools, worked for the three MPs?and they did more than just dust files. For Chaudhary, an alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE), the work included research into issues in agriculture, finance and energy.

One of the first legislative assistants in India, Gayatri Sahgal, a 23-year-old political science graduate, assisted then-Telugu Desam Party MP C. Ramachandraiah. Sahgal remembers that the experience helped her in two ways. First, she realized that her perception of MPs as corrupt and non-serious white elephants was flawed; second, legislators face a serious research deficit.

?I was very surprised,? Sahgal says. ?The MP had varied questions?on the Indo-US nuclear Bill, India?s energy needs, infrastructure projects…and on each of the topics, he wanted detailed papers. He wasn?t easily satisfied. Usually, I would make two drafts. But it was an exciting time.?

Research staffing for MPs should, Madhavan notes, be a no-brainer. ?In the case of ministers, they have an entire department dedicated to their subject, but when it comes to legislators, they don?t have anybody,? he says. ?If you look at their roles?one is to make laws. How can they do it if they don?t have the time to understand issues? The second important role…is to oversee the working of the government and question its programme in Parliament. How can they ask questions with zero research back-up??

The contrast between India and the US or the UK is stark. In the US, legislators have multiple assistants with specific areas of expertise. A senator may have a 60-person staff and an annual budget of $1 million (Rs4.65 crore).

In the UK, government and policy organizations hire university students to help with research. At LSE, which has conducted a parliamentary internship programme since 1998, coordinator Sharon Bray says the programme has covered more than 250 MPs over the last decade. Interns, mostly postgraduate students, work for the experience pro bono.

Deo?s perks as an MP, he feels, pale in comparison. Apart from using the Parliament library, where researchers hand out generic information on subjects and track newspaper reports, Deo does his Internet research, although he can?t find enough time for it.

?One can?t decide policy on the basis of newspaper reports,? he says. ?Policymaking is more detailed, nuanced…(it) needs critical assessment. I wish every MP had someone who would cut the clutter and tell them where they need to focus better.?

To hire staff for his office, carved out as an anteroom in his whitewashed bungalow in Delhi?s upscale Meena Bagh, the government pays Deo Rs14,000 a month. With this money, he already has a computer-literate assistant who manages his appointments. But for something as exhaustive as research, Deo says he doesn?t earn enough to pay for it, which is why the interns under him only got paid for their travel expenses.

But despite these scant means, more lawmakers are now seeking out research support. Despite receiving other material perks, some MPs feel betrayed by this lack of attention to their fundamental needs, which make for little news.

At PRS Legislative Research, requests for research assistance have been pouring in from MPs on a variety of issues. Independently, PRS conducted two pilot internship programmes in 2007 and 2008, where a few MPs were provided research assistants who were paid a monthly stipend.

But experts say such processes need to be institutionalized at a broader level in Parliament and universities. ?We call it (the programme) LAMPs (legislative assistance for members of Parliament),? says C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS. ?In the US, fresh graduates from Harvard join senators. We need to bring this culture as a must-have for both students and lawmakers.?

J.P. Agarwal, a Congress MP from north-east Delhi who has been availing of legislative assistants since 2008, finds a direct link between research support and quality of parliamentary debates. Many decades ago, as a first-time MP in the Lok Sabha, Agarwal was once shocked to find a fellow MP, years older to him, huddle beneath a bench to hoot at a rival who was making a speech.

?This was not how it should be,? Agarwal says. Many MPs, he feels, harbour a fear of making speeches. ?Their aspiration to be active in Parliament then finds expression in cheap antics in the House, which wouldn?t happen if they are better prepared with solid research support.?

On days when Chaudhary travels to his constituency in Mathura, the 31-year-old Parliament debutant admits to being boggled by the rapid changes in politics, which make demands on legislators and leave them little time to deal with legislative process.

?What I see now is a whole new dimension to politics, with technology coming in,? Chaudhary says. ?Earlier, one meeting in a constituency before elections would be enough. Now we are in constant campaign mode, constantly reaching out. In the midst of this, if you are a new MP, politics is like walking a tightrope.?

The MP has now launched a programme called Action Mathura to connect with young voters and pick bright minds from local colleges to assist him.

?I?m trying to institutionalize (legislative assistantship), but I?m facing problems,? he says. ?Most (students) are too stuck…with their obsession with medical and engineering careers, and don?t take this experience seriously. So we are still undermanned, understaffed. I Google on my own. Yet it?s never too late.?

This news can also be viewed at: