Six lessons I’ve learnt as an MP

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Derek O’Brien

I entered Parliament in 2011 with with wealth of professional and political experience. And yet I came as a rookie. At the the time, I described parliament as a University where you never stop learning. With the support of my party and my leader, I have moved from my back benches and from my first question– on the higher- education exodus of Indian students who go abroad after school— to the front row of the Rajya Sabha, and speeches on a range of subjects.

From Jammu and Kashmir to Internet neutrality; from the passage of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation to the state of the Indian Railways; from federalism to the safety of women. It has been a heady and educative experience. I am forever grateful. Listening to stalwarts across political parties has been an exhilarating experience. It has taught me a great deal. My years in Parliament have taught me something new almost everyday.

Here are six lessons from my first six years:

1. Stick to issues, don’t get personal : It’s easy to call an individual member of Parliament (MP) or a minister names and attract attention. This is a short-term gimmick. If you want to be taken seriously and respected as a parliamentarian, stick to issues. A government can get away by calling one or two individuals names. It can divert attention, pretend to be outraged and turn the tables on the abuser. If the government is interrogated on serious policy and administrative lapses, however, it will find it difficult to get away. This is a common-sensical observation, but is unfortunately not very common in our politics. Too many parliamentary interventions are aimed at the next hour’s television headlines, rather than at genuinely raising an issue and putting the government on the defensive.

2. Distinguish strategy from tactics : A party must have a considered and well-debated view on a particular policy matter. It must discuss and think about this internally and in the privacy of its in-house forums before it is brought up in Parliament. Too many parties ‘try and wing it’ on the floor of the House. This is not done and it sometimes shows up non-serious MPs and parties. One or two parties seem to take policy calls on a day-to-day basis, depending on the deal of the day. This makes them under-perform in Parliament, despite having many MPs. Decide your strategy in advance and improvise the tactics; the cues you will follow and the opportunities you can exploit on the floor of the House.

3. Research, research, research : While deciding on a strategy, there is no alternative to the old quiz master maxim of ‘research, research, research’. When setting questions for a quiz, researching by reading books, newspapers and a variety of literature; validating thoughts and facts you have in mind by checking sources; and even meeting interesting people who trigger ideas and potential questions with their conversations become important. It is one thing to be curious, it is another thing to channel and institutionalize your curiosity. Preparing for Parliament and taking a nuanced position on an upcoming bill requires similar preparation. You must read literature and documents, as well as meet people— practitioners, activists, academics and intellectuals, legal and economic minds—who represent a wide variety of stakeholders. Then you can formulate a policy response after weighing your political interests and philosophy and asking yourself what you believe is for the greater common good. There are no shortcuts in this process.

4. Grass roots, not Khan Market : Your research and quest for feedback must take you to the grass roots for both personally felt experiences as well as the voices and inputs of those actually affected by a bill or a policy—whether in rural or urban India. There is no point limiting your research to the two dozen know- alls’ Market. I am not a big fan of Private Member’s Bills. These never get passed and are in most cases a soporific opiate on a Friday afternoon. I am of the school of thought that believes that there are more effective ways of making a point in Parliament. That said, it is time to engage in a public debate as to how to make Friday afternoons more effective in both Houses.

5. Build a team : Sitting in the first row is not a reward; it is a responsibility. Party legislative leaders in consultation with the party chairperson have to decide who will speak on which subject. How does one use the former civil servant, an authority on land and labour issues; or the legal eagle; the eminent artist; or the former principal secretary in the party line-up? Who should speak when? Who should take the lead on which matter? Who will have the most impact and at which stage? The best parties think as teams. The most disappointing parties are collections of individuals who are uncoordinated.

6. Be an LIP, not a VIP : Mamata Banerjee likes to call herself a Less Important Person (LIP) and not a Very Important Person (VIP). MPs in all parties should adopt this motto, especially in public places. A handful of us don’t use the special-entry gates for MPs at airports—they are being phased out now, thank God—we stand in a queue to check in or go past security, carry our own bags and refuse help from airline or airport staff. I, for one, don’t do this to make a statement. Frankly, this is the way I’ve always done it. This is what my parents taught me. And I’d be embarrassed to have it any other way.

At airports, I avoid the ‘VIP lounge’ and am happier browsing at a bookshop or sipping a coffee. But then there is an example to follow : in all her years in public life, Mamata Banerjee has been simplicity personified. Parliamentary office is temporary. It is a phase of one’s life, not life itself. Don’t get married to the perks.

This post is also available in: Bangla

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