What makes your MP a true people’s representative?

To evaluate an MP, you must assess his performance in terms of how he performed his primary functions. Hear more about that from an expert panel.

This year could well be seen as a sort of a showcase for democracy, as over 60 nations around the world gear up for elections, parliamentary, presidential or regional. India, followed keenly around the world for its rising geopolitical stature, is just one of them. In a matter of weeks from now, we will be queuing up to elect our chosen member of parliament, or the MP from our constituency. 

But how do we make that decision? When we vote for a candidate, what should we expect him to do for his constituency? Build better roads? Create more jobs in his constituency? Make better laws for all?

That is something many ordinary citizens seem to be uncertain about, especially given the nature of election discourse in both traditional and social media. The discourse is usually and largely dominated by party dynamics and muckraking political leaders. By temples and road shows.

There is very little that analyses or throws light on the functioning of the Indian democracy over the past term or the effectiveness of Parliament and its members. Even less on what our incumbent MPs have done to perform their roles, or how well they have carried out their responsibilities.

In such a scenario, there is a lack of a meaningful pivot on which citizens can base their voting decisions. How do they elect the right candidate to Parliament, who will be a worthy representative of the people and hold power to accountability? With this in mind, Citizen Matters organised a panel discussion around the topic,  ‘What makes a Member of Parliament (MP) a people’s representative?’ 

The panellists included 

  • Professor Sridhar Pabbisetty, senior director of the School of Government at MIT, Pune, and public policy and inclusive governance specialist;
  • Tara Krishnaswamy, political consultant, citizen activist, co-founder of Citizens for Bangalore and Political Shakti; and 
  • Maansi Verma, social justice lawyer, public policy researcher and founder of Maadhyam, a civic engagement initiative. 

The session was moderated by Satarupa Bhattacharya, Managing Editor at Citizen Matters.

The discussion, as it flowed freely, brought out three key aspects that every citizen should know and understand: One, the functioning of the Lok Sabha; two, the role of the MP in it and the conduit that enables them to carry out that role, and finally, the role of the citizen in ensuring that the MP is a worthy representative.

Understanding how Parliament functions 

The devolution of powers, under the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts of the Indian Constitution, promotes local self-governance by empowering Panchayati Raj institutions in rural India and their urban counterparts. They are the go-to departments for addressing most of our essential daily requirements: roads, water, waste management etc.

Sridhar spoke about the major functions that fall under the respective local bodies. Urban local bodies (municipal corporations etc.) are supposed to carry out 17 major functions and their rural counterparts are entrusted with 29. The 17 major functions range from garbage management to road maintenance and sewage control.

Sridhar then outlined the structure of what our MPs are mandated to do. 

“There are certain delineated powers of policy making at the state and central levels. The Parliament has the power to make laws on matters under the Union List, which includes defence, central finance, communication, Indian Railways, banking, foreign affairs, currency, census, audit etc,” he explained.

Similarly, the state legislature can make laws on matters that come under the state list, which has 61 subjects, including law and order, police, public health, sanitation, and overall guidance to the local government.

Both the state and the centre can make laws that fall under the Concurrent list, which includes 52 items, including criminal law and procedure, civil procedure, population control, education, forests, electricity among others. In case of any conflict in the laws made by the state and the centre on any matter in this list, the decision of the Union government prevails.

Read more: Explainer: All you need to know about voter registration

In essence, MPs have little control over issues that fall under the State List or matters that are under the purview of the local body.

Sridhar next explained how Parliamentary Constituencies are defined. Delineation is done through an exercise by The Delimitation Commission of India, which was set up in 2002, where the present outline of constituencies was decided. 

Based on the population figures from the last Census, there are roughly 543 MP constituencies, each electing and sending one member to the Lok Sabha, and about 4,000 state assembly constituencies under MLAs in India. For example, Karnataka has 224 MLAs and 28 MPs, the ratio is 8, whereas Uttar Pradesh has about 400 MLAs and 80 MPs, the ratio is 5.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with women MPs in Parliament
The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill 2023 providing for women’s reservation in Lok Sabha and state assemblies, was passed on September 21st. The Prime Minister with Rajya Sabha MPs who voted for the Bill. Pic courtesy: Press Information Bureau

Then there are Parliamentary Committees, which aid the legislative process by looking deeper into the matters discussed, and by providing domain expertise . Sridhar pointed out, “Though committees are a relatively new phenomenon — it was only in the 1990s that we had Standing Committees function in Parliament — they play an important role.”

Maansi said that Standing Committees are envisioned to play two or three important responsibilities. Any Bill the government brings before the Parliament can be referred to the Standing Committee for detailed analysis and review. 

The Standing Committee is the only formal mechanism in Parliament for MPs to directly solicit comments from people. Notifications on proposed laws are published in the media and in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha websites and people can share their inputs or raise questions about the same with the Committee formed for the purpose. 

The Forest Conservation (Amendment) Bill last year, for example, was referred to a Joint Parliament Committee; the latter invited comments from citizens and it received more than 1,300 comments, memorandums, suggestions from people on the law that was floated. This is one way of deepening democracy. 

Both Maansi and Tara pointed out during the discussion that while evaluating the functioning of the Parliament what is important is not how many Bills were passed, rather how much time was devoted to debate on those Bills and hearing different voices and perspectives. “The Parliament is one of the most misunderstood institutions. As a result, we don’t fully comprehend its role in our democracy and so, we don’t properly understand whether it is functioning the way it is supposed to.” 

Parliament is not supposed to be a Bill-making factory and this is where the role of the MP becomes important.

Understanding what an MP is supposed to do

In this regard, it is first important to understand the difference between the Parliamentary form of democracy and the Presidential form of democracy, as Maansi explained.

“We do not directly vote to elect our Prime Minister; that factor may influence our vote, but we do not directly vote for the PM. We vote to decide who our MP is going to be. And then whichever party manages to have the maximum number of MPs in the Lok Sabha decides who the head of the government will be. This creates a chain of accountability that is closely linked to representation. While the MP represents us, one of the most crucial roles they play is in seeking accountability from that government. If an MP is unable to perform that role, that chain of accountability breaks.”

Read more: Voters’ dilemma: How to choose your MP?

The key functions of MPs thus include representing the constituency, making laws, influencing the budget, and holding the government accountable. They represent the voice of the people by various means — by writing to the Ministries, by raising questions in Parliament, by participating in debates. 

Questions asked in Parliament are a crucial tool to directly seek accountability from the government. MPs can ask questions seeking responses to various issues — ranging from when a railway station will be built to why a particular scheme is not working properly in a constituency. The information these bring forth is crucial public information. Therefore, one of the ways to analyse an MP’s performance is to look at the questions asked in Parliament.

“The government is obliged to give a response. A committee of representatives oversees the government responses and assurances and sees if it has been fulfilled in a time bound fashion. These are some of the ways the needs of a constituency can be raised by an MP. It is better to go to an MP or an MLA for policy level issues and guidelines, for framing and implementation of law,” explained Sridhar.

Maansi also highlighted an important point here. While the party in power has the mandate to govern, the role of the Opposition is equally important. Every MP, regardless of whether he is from the party forming the government or not, has the mandate of lakhs of people who voted for them. “In our imagination, we have made the role of the Opposition completely redundant. We voted for that MP precisely to prevent the government from abusing its power. As soon as a Lok Sabha is formed, there needs to be a Speaker and a Deputy Speaker, but we have not had the latter in the last five years,” she said.

It is important to note here that electing a deputy speaker is a mandate of our Constitution, and not something discretionary as the 17th Lok Sabha made it. It has been parliamentary convention to elect a deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha from a party other than the party in power, so that there may be an accountable democratic parliament. In that sense, the incumbent government was allowed to get away with the violation of the Constitution.

How can citizens connect with their MP?  

Tara spoke about her experience of lobbying for the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill, explaining how citizens can take their concerns to the MP. If an issue comes under the purview of the Union, and some legislation is drafted around the same, that bill must first be tabled by the government and then, MPs or legislators must vote in majority to have it passed. Therefore, for any issue in the Union List, citizens must request their MPs to lobby for the Bill in Parliament. But there also has to be pressure on the government – the Law minister – to draft and table such a Bill.

One of the means by which citizens can approach the MPs is to submit a petition. “Go to the MP’s office and submit a petition with signatures. We tried to do that with all 543 MPs. We managed to do it with about 140 MPs, whom we gave the actual demand to. The more MPs you can place your demand before, the more likely that somebody will take it up,” said Tara, speaking about their campaign for the Women’s Reservation Bill, “Since the Women’s Reservation Bill is a National Bill, we needed to reach out to MPs across India. We couldn’t physically go to every single MP, so we called some of the MPs,”

The movement created a committee of a 1,000 odd volunteers and conducted a ‘Call your MP’ campaign. Each of them actually picked up the phone and called their respective MPs, expressing their wish for such a law to be drafted and passed, and explaining the rationale behind the need for such a law. “You have a right to call your MP, they are your representative and they should answer your call,” reminded Tara.

In their case, 140 MPs across the country picked the call and responded. Each person called multiple MPs, so each MP received many calls, where the demand was the same: a law ensuring reservation for women representatives in Parliament. All these MPs in turn, convinced of public demand, raised the demand for such a bill in Parliament, which also made national news. In this case, the Bill was subsequently tabled and passed, creating a perfect case study for how citizens can engage with their MPs to get laws made.

Tara also stressed that democracy is about the means, not the end. “The process is important to take out the individual demagogue or individual hero who can sway people to their way of thinking. Instead, create a system that is independent of the person.”  

The outcome should be the will of the people, not the will of any particular individual and that is where the role of the MP, as an elected representative of the people, becomes important. At the end of it all, you may still get a law which is not exactly what you wanted, but due process, MP debates in Parliament, ensure that the legislation has been thought through, by multiple people, by multiple parties with different agendas, which is the essence of democracy.

Similarly, even in the case of the Union Budget, the government may claim to have allocated huge amounts to a particular area or a particular portfolio, but it is MPs who need to question whether the allocations actually make sense in the overall scheme of things in India. For example, if unemployment is going up, population is increasing, how can NREGA allocations be reduced?

The panel unanimously agreed that MPs play a crucial role in maintaining the entire democratic process, which is critical for the sanctity and effectiveness of the Parliament.

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