In the 70 years since India became a Republic, both Houses of Parliament have drawn people from all walks of life. As the Independence movement was mostly led by lawyer-turned-politicians, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, it was not surprising that more than a third of the members in the first Lok Sabha were advocates. This dominance by legal professionals continued well until the 9th Lok Sabha constituted in 1989. As a scientist, I was curious about who among the science fraternity made it to Parliament in the last seven decades. Globally, scientists have had slim representation in Parliaments. In India, fewer than 10 scientists have entered the portals of Parliament, and most of them were nominated to Rajya Sabha.
In this backdrop, it is surprising that Meghnad Saha, one of the brilliant physicists of the 20th century, known for his theoretical work on stellar ionisation, entered the first Lok Sabha by winning from Calcutta North West as an independent candidate supported by Left parties. To this day, he is the only scientist to be directly elected by the people. Since the 1920s, Professor Saha earned his spurs working on frontline problems of astrophysics and teaching physics at Calcutta and Allahabad universities. For his work on ionisation processes in stars, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Even as an ‘ivory tower’ scientist, his deep concern for society and national progress led him into public life. Ironically, he entered politics because of what he saw as the incompetence of ministers, who were “like landsmen who have never seen large sheets of water and still asked to pilot ships in the ocean”. His main contribution to nation building was in river-valley projects, championing research and in the idea of planning, which later took shape as the Planning Commission. In 2014, after the BJP came to power, the Planning Commission was disbanded and replaced by NITI Aayog.
It must be a rare coincidence that two eminent scientists were Members of Parliament at the same time. In 1952, Satyendra Nath Bose was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Reminiscent of the historic letter of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan to G H Hardy at Cambridge, Bose wrote to Albert Einstein of his discovery. He discovered a new method to count quanta of light based on the idea that they are not distinguishable from one another.
Einstein liked Bose’s idea and translated it into German and had it published. This seminal work led to Bose’s name tagged to a class of particles called Bosons. This work laid the theoretical foundations for practical applications like lasers. In Parliament, Saha spoke on a variety of issues of national development, but Bose took part only in a few debates. He spoke at length on the Bill to create the University Grants Commission, pointing out that it must confine itself to setting standards and not dictate terms to the universities that have vast experience in dealing with students and education.
After Bose’s retirement from Rajya Sabha, over the next 60 years, about seven scientists were nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Quite unusually, M G K Menon took the electoral route. He was a cosmic ray physicist and went on to head many influential scientific institutions and science academies in India. He was elected to Rajya Sabha in 1990 from Rajasthan as a Janata Dal candidate. Menon also briefly served as the minister of state for science and technology.
Not just in India, scientists’ track record of entering Parliament is dismal across the world. Both in the US and the UK, few scientists with doctoral degrees and research credentials enter the top legislative bodies through direct election. Occasional exceptions exist because scientists have been nominated. In 2005, Professor Martin Rees, an astrophysicist who had made significant contributions to our understanding of microwave radiation that surrounds us from all directions, was nominated to the House of Lords in the UK.
It is a moot question if scientists need to enter Parliament at all to be of service to the nation. For a scientist accustomed to playing with ideas, the rough and tumble of electoral politics presents an insurmountable entry barrier. Increasingly, Parliament makes laws that have significant technical content such as the Personal Data Protection Bill (2019) pending before the Lok Sabha. These require specialised knowledge. Yet, in most cases, the laws governing society are not necessarily founded on rational or strict scientific criteria. In such cases, science is just one of the many inputs and is not even the clincher. Maybe as Winston Churchill quipped, “scientists should be on tap (available to advise) but not on top”.
It is not to argue that scientists must avoid parliaments. In an increasingly divisive political environment, scientists not affiliated to political parties can present unbiased opinions on technical and other matters. A worrying trend is that, as the idealism of the 1950s gave way to realpolitik of 1970s, many nominationed members of the Rajya Sabha are party functionaries and not, as envisaged in the Constitution, those who had made a mark in their fields. Seventy years after the adoption of our Constitution, this is one more reason to read it again and strictly abide by its spirit.