Participants at the National Legislators’ Conference Bharat at Mumbai’s Jio World Convention Centre (Photos: Santosh Nagwekar)
A MIDDLE-AGED MAN WITH A BUSHY moustache and oily hair, who has been presented as a business and transformation coach, is holding forth on stress management in public life. Seated in front of him, across multiple rows of tables, are over 50 members of various Legislative Assemblies and Councils from across the country. And the speaker, having already used multiple acronyms to describe the malaise of stress, is now prescribing a cure by launching into yet another acronym.
“DOSE,” he says, and then enunciates each letter with great care. “You take a dose of medicine to deal with an illness, don’t you? So, here is a dose for stress.” He launches into a complicated explanation of this new acronym—the hormones dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphin—and how in its cultivation, through the pursuit of activities that give us pleasure and boost its presence, lies the answer to the issue of stress. At this point, the screen that he has been using to make a PowerPoint presentation comes alive with a new slide.
An infant wonder spreads in his widened eyes as he reads the words on the slide aloud. “Make today so awesome that tomorrow gets jealous,” he reads.
I move my gaze around the room, expecting to see stunned faces. Did they just hear what I did? But on the faces of the attendees instead is the practised expression of backbenchers in class. Their hands create a rim over their foreheads, eyes heavy and downcast, an expression that suggests either concentration or deep sleep.
You realise then that legislators cannot be stunned or dulled by such conferences. They are its veterans. They are inured to it.
I am not entirely sure I am supposed to be in this room. An event for legislators, the National Legislators’ Conference (NLC) Bharat, spread across three days at Mumbai’s fancy Jio World Convention Centre, billed as a unique and possibly the largest such conference for Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) and Legislative Councils (MLCs) across states, has broken into many small sessions to help legislators cope with various aspects of legislative life, all running concurrently, from stress management, legislative practices, to the use of technology for economic welfare, and many others. And I have snuck into this one on stress management. Someone has pulled a seat for me, lowered the microphone on my table to my mouth, and presented my head with a pair of earphones that shine in pink letters, ‘Silent Party’. When I turn to the other attendees and I see their warm smiles, I begin to suspect they have mistaken me for a legislator visiting from a remote northeastern state.
This session is unlike other sessions elsewhere; this one is packed to the brim. The session owes its popularity, I guess, to the heavyweight leader chairing it (Suresh Kumar Khanna, Uttar Pradesh’s finance and parliamentary affairs minister), and because stress, a condition we all discuss but rarely ascribe to those who hold public office, is one that particularly affects our elected leaders.
“The average ratio of elected representatives to voters is 1: 3,00,000. In some places, it can stretch to 1:12,00,000. Did you know that?” asks Khanna at one point during the session, as rows of heads nod in agreement. “You cannot fulfil everyone’s aspirations. So, there are pressures, there is stress. How do you reduce it?”
WHEN THE TRANSFORMATION COACH GOES through his presentation, a kind of stupor descends on the room. But it comes alive the moment the floor is opened to the attendees. Liberated from public scrutiny and drawn into confidence with the knowledge that they are among peers, the legislators speak about the stress and pressures of their job with a kind of candour rarely seen in public life. Sushil Namoshi, sitting at the end of one row in the room, for instance, knows all about the stress of public life. In 2018, the BJP leader from Karnataka famously broke down in front of cameras when he was asked for a reaction about being denied an MLA ticket. There were several theories about why Namoshi was overlooked, from having earned BS Yediyurappa’s displeasure for not sticking with the former chief minister when he was made to step down some years before, to Namoshi’s poor performance in previous elections. But when the news came, it still hurt. Namoshi sobbed, and could not stop sobbing until his son materialised and mercifully led him to another room. Today, those days appear far behind him. Slightly built and spectacled, he looks much happier. His party might no longer be in power in the state but Namoshi has been able to secure himself in the state’s Legislative Council, elected from a teacher’s constituency.
“Many times, voters come to us and ask us for something which we know cannot be done. And we all usually don’t speak the truth,” he says and looks around the room to see the effects of this admission on those gathered. “What should we do? Do we lie and make him happy or do we tell the truth and make him unhappy?”
It is a sort of trick question, truthful, but also meant to alleviate the monotony that had filled the room when the transformation coach held forth and its candour leads others to open up. And for the rest of the session, the leaders speak frankly, about the stress of voters having unrealistic demands, how their futures depend not just on pleasing their constituency but also the higher-ups in their party, or about the need to be on social media and the pressures that come from it. “Every year during festivals, people come, and each one expects a certain amount to be given to them. The truth is that there are so many of them that we become poor ourselves,” says a legislator from Uttar Pradesh (UP). Everyone nods in commiseration, until another, a colleague of his from UP, chimes in, “I know we shouldn’t be angry. But when 20 to 25 people come and say they are building a temple and ask for money, and when you offer them less than what they are expecting and they don’t agree, how do I deal with them? How do I not get angry?”
The advice by the transformation coach for the need to unplug from their devices comes in for a particular dispute. “You have seen how our phones keep ringing, even during this session,” says Surabhi, the 30-something Apna Dal MLA from UP’s Kaimganj constituency. “How can we unplug from our devices? We can’t.” For her colleague, BJP MLA Neeraj Bora from the Lucknow North constituency, a silver-haired leader close to his 60s, it is social media in particular that is the source of a lot of his stress. “You get these nasty comments online. And you feel like commenting back or blocking them,” Bora says. “There is immense stress from these comments. And the thing is you can’t unplug, you have to stay online.”
When Khanna, the chairperson of the session and a senior leader in UP who has won the Shahjahanpur constituency nine times in a row, offers suggestions, the audience listens with rapt attention. He tells his peers that many of these sources of stress can’t be dealt with, but their responses to these triggers can help. “Our health, that is very important. You have to be cautious. Sleep early, go for morning walks, and do yoga. If we keep ourselves fit, then you can handle stress a lot better,” he says. He brings up time management as a particularly important aspect. “Time management is very important. This is the biggest source of stress for a leader. Set a time—for when to meet people, when to meet your administrators, and the next day’s schedule ready in advance. If you do this well, 75 per cent of your stress gets taken away,” he says.
The leaders spoke freely, about the stress of voters having unrealistic demands, how their futures depend not just on pleasing their constituency but also the
higher-ups in their party, or about the need to be on social media and the pressures that come from it
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Everyone nods and offers their own suggestions. It is an unusual session. Not unlike office offsite meets, where colleagues gather to discuss their pet peeves, except here is the unusual sight of legislators doing so.
For three days, over 2,000 legislators from different state Assemblies and Councils march to and fro across the vast Jio World Convention Centre. NLC Bharat—organised by the Karad family, who run a number of educational institutes, including the MIT (Maharashtra Institute of Technology) School of Government, and mentored by a governing council that includes former Lok Sabha Speakers Sumitra Mahajan, Meira Kumar, Manohar Joshi, and Shivraj Patil—is meant to be a non-partisan ecosystem where legislators can meet and exchange ideas at one place. Its inaugural event is certainly one of a kind, with a number of serving and former speakers of various state and national Assemblies, chief ministers and ministers, dropping in or joining the forum online, and the biggest leader in the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his rival Rahul Gandhi sending letters to be read on the dais.
But it is the sessions that branch off, dealing with particular aspects of public life, that are most interesting. And on the third day, in one corner of a large convention hall, UT Khader, the current speaker of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly is holding forth. “Image is like an exam in school. You do brilliantly and get good marks in four subjects. But if you fail in one, you fail in the whole exam. Image is like that,” he says. “Pass in everything, but if you fail in the image, everything you have done has no value.”
Khader is chairing a fairly packed session on image-building, with Ram Charan, the well-known Indian-American business consultant and speaker, and Michael Pippenger, vice president and associate provost at the University of Notre Dame in the US, as special speakers. Every time one of them begins to speak, the legislators scribble notes. You get the impression that they consider image-building to be particularly important.
Most legislators worry about the use of social media to pull down an image built painstakingly over years. “For five years in my first term as MLA, I spoke about education all the time in the Assembly. Everyone was saying this guy should become the education minister,” says RA Sangma, the current education minister in Meghalaya. “Today, the same guys criticise me all the time. You can’t do everything at the same time. I feel like responding because it takes minutes to destroy someone’s reputation,” he says. In another corner, Ravi Chandra Reddy, a 30-something MLA from Andhra Pradesh, makes another frank admission. Image-building today is less about building your image than destroying your opponent’s. “In this era of political consultants, that is the focus. And it becomes all about damage control. You try to refrain from it. But you go back into it,” he says.
The session goes on this way, with people exchanging their stories and the difficulties they face. Amba Prasad, who at 35 years of age is the youngest in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly, points to how image-building is particularly hard for young women. “The opposition would tell my constituency, ‘Don’t give her votes. It will be like giving votes in a dowry. She’ll get married, go to the US, and her husband will control the constituency’,” says Prasad, who quit her ambitions of trying to crack the UPSC exams once her father, the former agriculture minister in the state, Yogendra Sao, was arrested on what she claims are bogus charges, and stood for elections instead. “People don’t look at you as a daughter or a human the day you get elected. They see you as a selfish person with power,” she goes on.
Khader, Charan and Pippenger offer suggestions and advice. But for many of these issues, there are no real solutions to be offered. At one point, Pippenger offers a quote. “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate you can handle,” he says.