It was a quintet that seemed to have little in common. Wharton-minted Sachin Pilot was from the Congress, and Supriya Sule, heir apparent to Sharad Pawar, from the Nationalist Congress Party. Baijayant Jay Panda, born into a business family and armed with a double degree from Michigan Technological University, belonged to the Biju Janata Dal, while Congressman Madhu Goud Yaskhi was a lawyer who divided his time between the United States and Andhra Pradesh. Then there was Shahnawaz Hussain not quite as cosmopolitan as the rest, but he had an engineering diploma from Bihars Supaul and Delhis ITI. And he was from the Bharatiya Janata Party.
What connected the group was a report that they pored over in the Central Hall of Parliament. It said that a little under half of Indias population was poorly nourished. This was an issue that transcended party lines. We thought that if we had the will and dedication, we could work on it and interface directly with civil society, says Panda, 45.
Theres a new buzz in Parliament these days and thats multi-partisanship, or simply working together. Some issues at least to a clutch of members of Parliament (MPs) are bigger than party affiliations. Every party has good MPs who will rise above its confines and address serious issues, says Hussain.
The change is palpable to the 41-year-old parliamentarian, whose entry into politics was through the BJP in the choppy Babri mosque-Ram Janmabhoomi era.
By his admission, the political establishment has rarely been as sharply divided as it was then. And he has seen bipolar politics since 1999, when he marked his debut in Parliament. But it was his return to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in 2006 (he lost his seat, Kishenganj, in 2004) that unlocked a whole new world for him.
In the seven years that passed, Parliament looked transformed. The 14th Lok Sabha had a record number of young MPs constituting about 10 per cent of the total. They were not apolitical. But remarkably, they engaged on national matters with their peers across parties without carrying any baggage, Hussain says.
One of the outcomes of that was the group that was set up to campaign against malnutrition. This was Parliaments first informal cross-party initiative. Part activist and part supervisory, it gave the MPs space to take slightly unconventional positions on issues without flouting party lines. The core group of five has since drawn more than 20 MPs, mostly in their 30s and 40s.
We laid the ground rules. We will not allow party politics to interfere with our working. At the same time we will be an effective pressure group, says Yaskhi.
More and more young MPs are hoping to sit together to thrash out issues that confront the nation. Congress MP Milind Deora is going to head a body set up by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry on global warming. The group is still taking shape and Deora plans to include members from across parties.
The multi-partisanship approach is evident in the field trips that the malnutrition group undertakes every three months to the states. The unwritten rule is that nobody should embarrass the government of the day. The idea is to co-operate. In Bihar, (chief minister) Nitish Kumar asked his officials to give us a detailed presentation. He helped us every which way, says Panda.
When press conferences are called, they are anchored by a member who does not belong to the party ruling that state. For instance, in Bihar Panda took the floor while in Maharashtra Sule took a back seat.
Though Parliament has always had a few members whove nurtured friends across parties, the trend is on the rise now. Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav from the Congress and the Samajwadi Party respectively can be spotted texting each other in Parliament. The camaraderie is not just restricted to professional issues. On the personal side too, many of the MPs maintain friendly ties, despite their warring parties.
Last month, when BJP MP Tathaghat Satpathy hosted a party, outfitted with a bar, a band and fusion food, Milind Deora held the guests in thrall with his guitar riffs. Sule and Kanimozhi of the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam are inseparables. Anurag Thakur, the 36-year-old BJP MP from Hamirpur, jettisoned the partisan politics he knew while growing up as Himachal Pradesh chief minister Prem Dhumals son to embrace friends from across the board.
Thakur is now planning a treat for Mohammed Azharuddin (Congress), Kalikesh Singh Deo (BJD), Kirti Azad (BJP), Jayant Choudhury (Rashtriya Lok Dal) and others in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh shortly when he hosts the first MPs XI versus Media XI match outside New Delhi. So enthralled is Thakur with the social world he has entered that he skipped the first day of the BJPs national council meet in Indore in March to attend his buddy Congress minister Jitin Prasadas marriage.
But despite the blossoming friendships, its not always easy to keep politics out. When the malnutrition group visited Jhambukhandan village in Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh earlier this week, Neeraj Shekhar, a 42-year-old Samajwadi Party MP, took gentle digs at Yaskhi. They were talking to villagers, sitting on charpoys, when a wizened old man began to hold forth on the Socialist leaders of yore, Ram Manohar Lohia and Baleshwar Dayal, saying that the villagers owed everything they had from education to health to them.
Shekhar, son of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekar, smiled and nudged Yaskhi to say, See, 45 years later, people talk about Lohia and not your Sonia Gandhi. Yaskhi feigned deafness as the duo dipped their chapatis into the daal to sample the food that was served to village children as a mid-day meal. The cross-party verdict was the food was wholesome.
For many of the young MPs, the exercise is also opening up aspects of India that are often curtained off for visiting VIPs. When the team reached the next stop at Sangesri in Rajasthan, Jyoti Mirdha of the Congress baulked when she walked into a childcare centre that had been spruced up for the visitors but had little else to show. There was no hot meal; instead packaged multi-grain powder was spooned sparingly into a bowl of water to serve up a tasteless congealed mess to a room full of bawling kids with distended bellies, yellow skins and gnarled limbs.
Mirdha, 34, the granddaughter of Rajasthans Jat icon Nathu Ram Mirdha, believes that issues such as malnutrition have to be looked at in the context of development. For her, nutrition is not just about food but about water. Food security makes no sense without water security, she holds.
And thats where the environment comes in. We think of economics in numbers. But the poor will not separate ecology from economics, she says. When an entrepreneur sets up a unit, the environmental costs are not factored in because the environment comes for free and, therefore, is up for abuse. Its time to quantitatively evaluate the environment because we have to return to Nature what we take from her. The planets total gross domestic product (GDP) is equal to the services provided by Nature, she says.
One of the reasons the MPs can work together is the fact that the issues they take up are universal. It will be difficult for the young MPs, for instance, to form groups on issues such as Maoism, economic reforms or communalism. But on global warming, malnutrition and other such subjects on which there is unanimity that something has to be done, it is easier for them to work together.
The question, however, is how far these MPs can take their work. In the final analysis, will their efforts merely translate into finely crafted reports?
The MPs dont think so. We met the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader and Sonia Gandhi. The Prime Minister has a six-month review meeting with states on terrorism. We demanded a similar one on malnutrition. We suggested an awards system to make district collectors accountable, says Panda.
For Shekhar, who represents his fathers political fief Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, the spin-off from the nutrition project is the hope and belief that if it is replicated in his home state, something positive will happen to its political culture.
I grew up seeing every party leader in my house because my father had several friends. Now politics in Uttar Pradesh is so vitiated that a Samajwadi MP or MLA will get no work done from the Mayawati government. I will suggest that there be multi- partisanship at least on development, he says.
Politics or not, most of the young heirs and heiresses believe they are rewriting the rules of engagement in Parliament and outside without allowing ghosts from the past to haunt their relationships. Sule, whose father racheted up a campaign to deny Sonia leadership of the Congress because of her foreign origin, wants to bury the past.
Its all so lovely, lets keep it lovely and not let past shadows darken it, she says. From across the parties, several young voices would say Amen.