A popular television ad for a known beverages brand shows a mock parliamentary debate where students throw objects and thrash each other, taking a dig at real life polity in our country. Bipartisanship is a dream, as much in America or Britain as it is in India. In every democracy, elected parliamentarians frequently resort to personal attacks, bickering and standing for a "party cause" rather than a "national cause".
Yet, India differs in several ways.
Without commenting on whether the tone of interaction is more acerbic in India or the debates more brutal, it's easy to point out that a much smaller fraction of highly educated youth want to enter politics in our country. There are notable exceptions, but by far, policy-making does not seem an attractive career choice for honest, studious, achievement-oriented types. In contrast, many high-achieving university students in Western nations aspire to public life. Humourists claim that the easier path to power might indeed be getting into commercial spiritualism, using God-personhood to catapult either directly into politics or somewhere along the way, doing a jail stint to build netherworld connects, and thereafter getting into the corridors of power. With role models like these, more youth can laugh at politics than join it.
"The revenue riding on entertainment channels runs into thousands of crores. What if even a teensy fraction of that was mandated on entertaining dramas highlighting public values?"
Jokes aside, Milind Deora started a Youth Parliament in Mumbai few years ago. The Harvard Model United Nations conference was held recently in Hyderabad. Children from elite schools have been participating in local Model UN or Model Lok Sabha debates for several years. What about children and youth in other schools? The concept of Model United Nations or Model Parliament rests on the idea of a topic of geopolitical, economic or social benefit, which students research upon and debate. It gives students the opportunity to read deeply and broadly, give choate shape to their thoughts, chisel their arguments, write position papers and speak in a mock public forum to create a solution. It gives students lessons in debate, diplomacy, decision-making and more -- all elements that open their minds. If more children in schools in every region and every type of curriculum went through the Mock Parliament incubated by Deora, we might see a better generation of parliamentarians in the future.
Some years ago, the idealistic people at Parliamentary Research Services opened their offices in New Delhi to help Indian parliamentarians better prepare for debates. After all, every policy and bill -- if it ever comes to the discussion table -- requires reams of information, data, analysis and multi-lateral thinking to understand the needs of various stakeholders so that better policies can be drafted. This has been institutionalised in Western democracies. In addition, each senator has an office of research assistants who gather information and create reports, specific to the committees and agenda favoured by the particular leader. To expect the average paan-chewing PA to create such documents is a joke. This is where the PRS papers come in. How many MPs actually leverage this service? PRS runs an exemplary LAMP internship program, where students from top universities in the world come to work with a select group of MPs. They get valuable lessons in public service and politics. What if many more such internships could be made available to more students across India, through well-meaning MPs, MLAs, or even senior bureaucrats, how valuable would it be?
"[I]f we do not work on the basal layer, the unseen values that manifest in behaviour, the public-good mentality and the ability to think about issues and shape discussions, we can't create the citizens we need..."
These things do happen in pockets today, but the need of the hour is to institutionalise such experiences, and give access to students from different walks of life to get inspired by "right-minded" public officials and politicians.
Justice Leila Seth published an excellent picture book on the Constitution last year. The challenge with the subject "Civics" in classrooms is that it remains limited to the recitation of rights and duties of citizens. It never comes alive.
Notwithstanding the excellent TV series Samvidhaanon the making of the Constitution, satellite media -- which exerts more persuasive power today than print, digital, film or any other medium -- needs to beam into every home stories and examples of good parliamentary proceedings and leadership. Not the ones we get through the news. Every channel in this country exceeds the mandatory limit for corporate CSR spend. The revenue riding on entertainment channels runs into thousands of crores. What if even a teensy fraction of that was mandated on entertaining dramas highlighting public values? We have seen the emergence of ads issued in public interest. It is not enough to inculcate deeper thinking or give us an entree into the world of policymaking. True documentaries and global news segments exist. But if we can sing the virtues of saas-bahu serials in enabling young rural girls to demand for their rights or a pucca toilet at home, then why can't a new segment of serials teach us other things in a fun way?
As a nation we are focusing on the economic opportunities for today and skill-building institutions for tomorrow. But if we do not work on the basal layer, the unseen values that manifest in behaviour, the public-good mentality and the ability to think about issues and shape discussions, we can't create the citizens we need for the democracy of tomorrow.