Statistics, complex graphs and numbers fill the presentation screen, while words like ‘kernel density' and ‘negative binomial regression' are thrown around. And yet, when Srikrishna Ayyangar, assistant professor at the University of Hartford, New England, explains the significance of these numbers, the audience is held in rapt attention.
Every now and then, the silence is broken by the whisper of approval as Dr. Ayyangar, who teaches comparative politics and public policy at the university, reels out inferences from his research titled ‘The Question Hour in India — some diagnostics'.
Behind the deceivingly complicated numbers, which help analyse the ‘who' and ‘how many' of questions asked during the Lok Sabha Question Hour between 1980 and 1999, lie deceivingly simple revelations.
Juniors in the spotlight
For one, the session, which is often overshadowed by the more politically-explosive policy discussions and walkouts, seems to be used mostly by junior MPs as a platform to advance their careers.
“Age plays a factor,” he says. “While, younger MPs ask questions to create a noise for themselves within the party, when they reach a particular position or have a ministerial post, they just keep shut!”
There is more: the deceivingly simple inference reveals the uglier side of gender and caste politics. “Women ask questions throughout their tenure as an MP compared to their male counterparts. We can only infer that they take a longer time to break the glass ceiling within the party compared to the men,” says Dr. Ayyangar. Similarly, the marginalisation of women and Scheduled Tribe groups in the parliamentary system is suggested by numbers that reveal they ask far fewer questions.
The theories still need to be tested against collaborating data. But with over four years of teaching experience, apart from having collaborated, taught or studied in institutes synonymous with policy and political research, including Jawaharlal Nehru University and Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, and Syracuse University in New York, among others, Dr. Ayyangar can reel out his deductions with some conviction.
So, why research Question Hour, a concept that is losing significance in the age of television debates and the Right to Information Act? “This is the most democratic hour in the Lok Sabha because an MP can participate without the control of a party whip. What better place then to see the real motivations behind how MPs participate?” he asks.
Not an easy task
Collating data for the research, which he reckons has not been conducted before, was not an easy task. “Getting data was difficult. Surprisingly, the publications of questions asked during the research are not available in India. We're more likely to find books about Question Hour in North Carolina rather than Bangalore or New Delhi,” he says.
He says his interest in political research began in the 1990s, when the trifecta of Mandal, Masjid and Manmohan Singh dominated college discussions. “How could you study or even have been concerned with anything else!”
A plethora of degrees and research projects later, he found himself teaching politics to a classroom where the ethnic diversity ranges from Chinese to Burundians and Bosnians, among others.