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Archive for October, 2010

‘Jack of all trades: How can MPs fulfil all their roles?’

October 25th, 2010 1 comment

At an event organised by the Hansard Society, a UK based political research and education charity, MPs spoke about what their role entails and the challenges the face in fulfilling their role.  It is striking to note the similarity between what our Parliamentarians have to share about the challenges they face in their roles as representative of the people and what the UK MPs have shared.

  • Management of their diary i.e. Time Management and prioritizing issues are important to the MP being able to do justice to his various roles
  • The MPs stated that the constituency expects action from them on issues which fall within the purview of the local Government and should have been taken up with the councillor. These could be issues related to public works, schools and the like.
  • Quite often the local councillor is unknown to the population and since the MP is easily recognizable, local issues are taken up with him. The MP is obliged to take up the issue because he cannot be seen to turn anyone away.
  • People assume that if you are not seen on the streets you aren’t doing your job. Therefore constituency visits are deemed important and end up taking quite a bit of time, which could have been otherwise devoted to legislative work.
  • MPs with a thin majority tend to focus more on local issues for fear of not being able to retain their seat. They tend to try that much harder to address local issues, even with the knowledge that it is not their primary responsibility.
  • Some MPs felt that the committee work should be of foremost priority instead of just an additional responsibility for the MP, as it is at the committee level that all aspects of the legislation can be examined and worked on in detail.
  • MPs should be encouraged to specialize in subjects so that they develop their knowledge in there area of interest.

In general, there are three views the MP has to balance: The Party’s, The Constituency’s and his or her Personal views. For example the debate on Wind Farms for renewable energy which spoil the landscape, or immigration. These are subjects where the three views may be vary greatly from each other and the MP has to balance each of these.
Ultimately, loyalty to party is a must, since the MP won on the party’s ticket, so the MP owes his/her allegiance to the Party and should endorse the Party’s views.

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Three questions from Bangalore

October 15th, 2010 2 comments

The trust vote drama in Karnataka has hit the national headlines. The incumbent chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa appears to have won the first round. It remains to be seen how the BJP responds to the governor’s direction that a second trust vote be held by the 14th of this month. In the 225-member Karnataka assembly, the ruling BJP had a wafer-thin majority since the 2008 assembly elections. And it was not surprising to find that some political forces in the state felt that there was an opportunity to unseat the government. But what has transpired over the past few days has once again reminded citizens of the ugly side of politics.

Leading up to the trust vote, the governor of Karnataka wrote a letter to the speaker of the Karnataka assembly asking that no MLAs be disqualified before the trust vote was conducted on the floor of the assembly. Subsequently, there have been a number of allegations about the conduct of the trust vote itself. The governor openly called the trust vote “farcical”, and wrote to the Centre asking that President’s Rule be imposed in the state, before he directed the government to prove its majority again.

This phenomenon of trust votes is not uncommon in our dynamic political culture. Just before the 2009 general elections, the BJD and the BJP had differences over seat-sharing in Orissa. The BJP decided to withdraw support to the Naveen Patnaik government. The BJD passed the floor test by a voice vote. While the opposition claims that the process was not fair, the BJD leadership has maintained that there was no request for a division, which would have required recorded voting. The relatively small Goa assembly has seen a number of similar occurrences in the recent past, with governments changing as a result.

But there are some critical issues that merit examination. In some recent trust votes, there have been allegations that large amounts of money have been exchanged. Of course, following the 2008 trust vote in the Lok Sabha on the India-US nuclear agreement, the infamous cash-for-votes scam broke out, with wads of cash being shown on the floor of the House. In the Karnataka trust vote, too, there have been allegations that large amounts of money have changed hands.

The second issue is how some of these trust votes are managed on the floor of the House. Both the recent Orissa episode and the ongoing Karnataka one have been very contentious about the procedure that has been used to prove the majority. In both cases, the opposition alleged that they asked for a division, which would require a physical count of votes rather than just a voice vote, and in both cases a division was not held. A parallel issue which needs to be kept in mind is the governor’s power to ensure compliance with procedure in the state legislatures.

The third issue that needs some discussion is whether the decision on defections should be judged by the speaker, usually a member of the ruling party or coalition, or by a neutral external body, such as the Election Commission. In the latest episode in Karnataka, the speaker has disqualified MLAs on the ground that they have voluntarily exited the party under which they were elected. In a 1994 case (Ravi S. Naik v. Union of India), the Supreme Court ruled that the words “voluntarily giving up membership” have a wider meaning. An inference can also be drawn from the conduct of the member that he has voluntarily given up the membership of his party.

There is a huge paradox in the anti-defection law that was passed 25 years ago. While MLAs and MPs vote along party lines on ordinary legislation, they do not appear to be daunted by the consequences in the case of trust votes. So, in effect, the anti-defection law appears to be effective in controlling members of all parties on policy-making — which could in fact benefit from more open input from across party lines — but ineffective in several cases with regard to trust votes. Clearly, there is much more at stake for all concerned in trust votes, and therefore the scope for greater negotiation.

Politics in our large and complex democracy is fiercely competitive. Dissidence is to be expected because there are too many people vying for too few of the top positions. While there are no perfect solutions, the only sustainable and meaningful approach is to encourage inner-party democracy so as to enable a selection process for positions of responsibility that is accepted as free and fair by all concerned. While the political uncertainty continues, the only certainty for India’s citizens is a very unhealthy politics for some time to come.

- CV Madhukar

This article was published in Indian Express on October 13, 2010

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What we have Learned about our MPs and Parliament

October 10th, 2010 7 comments
This month, PRS Legislative Research is 5 years old! The objective when we started out was to make the legislative process in India better informed, more transparent and participatory.  From what started off as an idea, we believe we have made some progress towards our objective.

-       About 250 MPs across political parties have reached out to PRS for inputs on a range of issues that have come up in Parliament.  In addition, there are a number of MPs who use PRS material for their preparation in Parliament, even though they have not contacted PRS for further inputs.

-       PRS has increasingly become a resource for the media as well.  Over the past year, PRS has been cited on nearly 400 occasions by leading newspapers and websites as the source of information about legislation and Parliament.

These are some of the milestones that we feel happy to have reached.  But I want to really share are some of the learnings that we have had over these years.


The first thing that we have learned is that many of us carry so many wrong perceptions about our MPs. Most of us don’t know that more than 80 percent of our MPs have college degrees.  Most of us don’t know that the average attendance rate in Parliament is close to 80 percent in the past year.  Most of us don’t know that Parliament has worked for more than 90 percent of the scheduled time in recent sessions, despite the undesirable disruptions in Parliament. There is a lot that is wrong with our politics, but we hope that some of these facts throw light about some lesser known aspects about our MPs.

Laws are made for the really long term! That seems obvious, when we see examples such as our Indian Penal Code which was made in 1860, and the Land Acquisition Act that has haunted our country in recent years was passed in 1894.  And these are just some examples.  The fact is that if we do not debate our laws when they are being made, and citizens do not engage and provide inputs to this process, then we will be stuck with any issues that these laws might have for the next 100 years or more.  So it is critical to get the laws as close to ‘right’ as possible when they are being passed.

It is not obvious to most people that so many MPs put in significant effort to engage effectively in Parliament. Clearly, there is a selection bias, statistically speaking – I am talking of MPs who have reached out to us.  Despite this selection bias, the point is that there are a number of MPs who take their work in Parliament seriously, even though they know that much of the work they do in Parliament has almost no bearing on their re-election prospects.  (By the way, in most informal polls that I have done when I meet with groups of people, most do not know the role of an MP – even amongst some of the well educated groups.)

Why do so many MPs still work hard to prepare for their work in Parliament, despite knowing that this work has no bearing on their re-election prospects? On this, we can only hypothesize.  There are many MPs who understand their role as legislators and take it very seriously.  There are MPs who feel that making a good point on an issue on the floor of Parliament is a way to establish their grasp of a certain issue to their colleagues in Parliament, but also to the larger world.  For some others, it is a signalling device to their party colleagues about their interest and expertise in a certain subject area.  And we have had MPs who have said, that they feel very good when other MPs, especially from other parties, compliment them for making a good point.  All of these sound like good positive reasons for many MPs to want to be well prepared to speak in Parliament.

We have begun to appreciate that the role of the MP in Parliament is very challenging. I can point to at least three reasons, which are independent of how educated or capable an MP might be: (a) The range of subjects in Parliament is so wide that no individual, however intelligent, can be fully conversant with all the subjects being discussed.  (b) MPs have no research staff whatsoever, and are expected to do all of their preparatory work on their own, and (c) The constituency pressure on the MPs is often very high, making it difficult for them to pay adequate attention to their work in Parliament.

We most certainly want more from our MPs and our Parliament. We want our MPs to meet for more days, find better ways to raise issues in Parliament than to disrupt proceedings, debate in more detail the laws that they pass.  But what we have learned is that we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water.  So, I am not suggesting that we can’t do better or that our MPs or our Parliament are perfect.  The only way we will have a better Parliament is if we engage.  And more people engage – from all walks of life.  Policy making is not the exclusive preserve of either the expert or the policy maker.  The policy process can be greatly strengthened if we participate in the process and ensure that our MPs know that we want effective laws to govern us and our children.

Parliament can be made more effective by addressing some of the current bottlenecks. And some of these issues are not even difficult to fix.  For example, can we have more people in the committee staff to support the work of the standing committees in Parliament so they can cover more ground in any given year?  Can we have qualified research staff working for MPs so that they can go better prepared for Parliament?  (Our Legislative Assistants to MPs – LAMPs programme has shown that it is hugely rewarding for young legislative assistants and the MPs if such a platform is created.)  Can we have recorded voting on all legislative votes, instead of voice votes – the electronic button system is already in place to do this!  These are just some examples… and we at PRS have a laundry list of ideas for strengthening Parliament – with varying degrees of difficulty.  We have raised some of these issues in our Annual Conference of Effective Legislatures, and will continue to do so in the years ahead.

A very BIG thanks to each of you for making PRS possible over these past five years… We hope that you will continue to bless and support us in the years ahead to help shape a more robust policy making process in India.

PRS PRODUCTS

The Legislative Briefs are our flagship product.  Each Brief analyses one Bill pending in Parliament.  These are no longer than 6 pages and are sent to all MPs.  We then get calls from MPs asking for more information/ clarification.

Since earlier this year PRS has begun a Wednesday morning Policy Dialogue series exclusively for MPs.  These are widely attended by MPs across parties.

PRS is the knowledge partner to brief MPs in the Thursday morning Bill briefing sessions organised by the Constitution Club.

PRS has reached out to about 1000 journalists across the country, through journalist workshops and direct engagement.

PRS has started the Legislative Assistants to MPs (LAMPs) programme as a pilot initiative.  Under the programme, participating MPs get a trained legislative assistant for a period of three Parliament sessions.

PRS produces Primers to demystify Parliamentary process for citizens. These are widely used in our interactions with civil society groups.

The Vital Stats series is a crisp two page document that often highlights interesting aspects of Parliament.  They are very popular with journalists.

PRS has nearly 1000 fans on Facebook and 2000 followers on Twitter, including some MPs.

PRS has a Session Alert at the beginning of each session of Parliament.  On the last day of each session, PRS releases two reports on the just concluded session: Parliament Session Wrap and Plan vs. Performance.

PRS hosts an Annual Conference of Effective Legislatures each year to highlight certain aspects of the functioning of Parliament.

PRS has compiled a free online database of all state laws across the country.  This effort www.lawsofindia.org is the first effort of its kind in India.

The PRS website www.prsindia.org has become an important resource for anyone tracking the Indian Parliament both within the country and abroad.

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