Pragmatic | The only accounatable interface with the state

Much-despised Members of Parliament for the vast multitude of India’s masses

Today is the third consecutive day when the winter session of the parliament has been stalled. Of course, this is appalling and reflects poorly on our parliament and parliamentarians. On a lighter note, it is still not as bad as South Korea where one member of a minority party actually set off a tear gas shell in the parliament before a vote, turning the hallway into a melee.

This, however, reminded me of an interview conducted a few days ago by my fellow blogger, Nitin Pai with Jayant Choudhry, the Rashtriya Lok Dal MP from Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. He was the only legislator who expressed in the Lok Sabha concerns raised by citizens against the draconian Information Technology Rules (IT Rules) that came into effect this year. In the interview (watch at 4:12 here), Mr. Choudhry explains that most of his constituents are not aware of the legislative duties of a member of parliament. They expect him to intervene in issues which do not fall in the domain of a Member of Parliament.

This points to two simple conclusions. One, the angst in our middle-class and english language media about the role of our parliamentarians and their obvious lack of interest in formulating legislation is disconnected from the realities of electoral politics. The member of parliament is in the ultimate free-market where he has to deliver what the consumer wants. Thus his lack of focus on his constitutional role — of formulating legislation for the complete country. He or she is first focused on his constituency, on his party and his state — the priority in the mix varying with the issue under consideration.

Second, and this is the real issue here. Most organs of the Indian State have become dysfunctional. Members of parliament and members of legislative assembly perhaps remain the only responsive and accountable interface of the Indian state for the common masses. Unless other organs of the Indian state become responsive, approachable and accountable to the majority of the public, the average Indian voter will continue to look towards his or her elected representatives to fill that vacuum. And the MP, who has go to the same voter every five years to renew his mandate, will focus on what his constituents want from him. This ends up creating an elaborate network of patronage, caste and religious affiliations and manipulation by power-brokers that weakens our electoral democracy.

This argument is also borne by an observation made by Raj Cherubal in his talk at the Takshashila Shala in Chennai (watch the video of his talk here). When he stood for the local body elections in Chennai earlier this year, he observed that invariably 100 percent of the poor slum-dwellers had their voting IDs while a fairly large number of middle class didn’t even possess one. The middle class, in the first place, tries to avoid dealing with the state and where it is forced to deal with the state, it chooses to facilitate its dealing by using means at its disposal;  a paid agent, or a classmate or relative or acquaintance in bureaucracy can always help matters. The poor have no such choice and that voter ID is their premier tool of holding their elected representative accountable.

Yes, this is not the way democracy was designed to function in India.Yes, this means that “the voter’s expectation of rewards and benefits is associated not primarily with parties nor with the general outcome in the electoral and political system, but with those who manipulate his votes.” Or those MPs who can help him deal with the state, the state which supposedly exists to look after poor people like him. Like it or not, but this is a harsh reality of our system.

We can continue to hold our politicians and politics  in contempt. We can even treat our representative democracy with disdain. We can be smug in our belief that non-elected institutions which do not involve politicians are somehow the only ones that can be trusted. But these laments will not provide the answer. The answer will come from a state where an average citizen — and he or she is not the average reader of this blog — doesn’t have to bank on only his MP as an interface to deal with various instruments of the state.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.