Television and print media, NGOs and companies are all exhorting us to go out and vote. And vote for good candidates. Some have even begun to ask questions of sitting MPs — what has he really done for the constituency? Others have started asking their candidates what they will do for the constituency. Yet others are questioning how the MP spent his MPLADS money of Rs 2 crore per year. While this is necessary, it is important to reiterate that an MP’s role is different from
that of a municipal councillor.
A municipal councillor is responsible for a city’s basic upkeep, whether streetlights are working, and so on. The textbook definition of an MP’s role is different. The MP, also called legislator, is supposed to legislate — that is, create laws and policies that will benefit all citizens of the country including his direct voters. He is supposed to oversee government’s working to ensure that all passed laws and policies are implemented effectively and that people are benefiting. The MP represents his constituency in Parliament, and the MP is expected to review and approve budget proposals, and scrutinise effective use of funds.
Often, an MP receives a constant stream of visitors in his constituency with people asking for jobs, help for someone sick at home, money for a daughter’s wedding and so on. And what is the MPLADS money of Rs 2 crore per year spread over an average constituency of about two crore people? At best, the pattern of the MPLADS expenditure can indicate the MP’s priorities for the constituency. Thanks to the pressures, many MPs think of here-and-now solutions on such issues, which they think the voters expect them to be doing.
If unemployment is a problem in the constituency, the MP’s role is to create a national policy that will support job creation, with provisions for regions where unemployment is acute. Or if there is a serious problem of water shortage in his constituency, the MP needs to move a policy response to address the problem at a systemic level.
As we prepare to elect MPs and expect them to perform in Parliament, it is useful to understand issues with the way our political system is currently organised. Freshers in any party have fewer opportunities to contribute to their party’s thinking. In Parliament, a party’s MPs have to obey the party whip on any issue, or they risk disqualification from Parliament. Given competing interests within a party or among parties, it’s a challenge for individual MPs to exert influence on many issues.
So what are the right questions to ask of your candidates as you decide who to vote for? How has my MP influenced issues in Parliament? Has he raised issues that have made a significant contribution to the national thinking on, say, creation of jobs for the youth, or for the fight against trafficking in women? Where does he stand on issues that concern the constituency and the country? In short, who should I elect from my constituency so that he can make a significant contribution to national policy and oversee government’s performance, even while adequately representing his constituency’s issues?
Former Speaker of the US Congress, and long-time Congressman Tip O’Neill has famously said that ‘all politics is local’. But the challenge is for MPs to address local concerns while not forgetting their core responsibility of shaping national policy and providing India direction. And the bigger challenge for voters is to ask the right questions of our MPs and candidates and not think of MPs as an extended arm of municipal councillors. And clearly the media has a definite role in clarifying this to the people.
The author is Director, PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi