Thursday, September 03, 2009

India's Under-Resourced MPs

In yesterday’s Indian Express I had this piece highlighting that the average MP has no office or staff, beyond a single secretary, and arguing that MPs need to get sufficient resources if we expect them to do their job. The op-ed came out of my limited experiences listening or talking to MPs or former MPs in India. After these interactions I came away feeling India’s MPs were perhaps the most marginalized representatives I had ever met.

One MP described how he wanted to research a question he had about a bill and found himself in the Parliamentary library wasting hours trying to locate potentially pertinent books in that buidling's vast stacks and many rooms. I once asked a former, seemingly well intentioned and motivated MP what power he felt MPs had - you can get away with such blunt questions as a foreigner. He paused, reflected, paused some more, and then said he wasn’t sure what power he had while he was a MP, but he did get two crores to give to his constituency which he felt he could make a difference with sometimes (although many restrictions go into how that money can be spent). He said he just hoped he could make friends with the right people in his party and the ruling coalition, as no one really listened to him or the constituency he represented otherwise.

It strikes me there is a serious problem with how Members of Parliament have been sidelined. It clearly has an effect on the balance of power in India and how well governance is scrutinized. It’s easy to blame this on the MPs. Their crude, their corrupt, their incompetent, are all common refrains you will hear in India. Still, they aren’t even being given the tools to perform their job if they wanted to. I don’t want to seem conspiratorial about this, but it seems like the current staffing and office arrangement is designed to keep your average MP from being able to make any difference whatsoever on anything that might matter. It's designed to keep them marginalized and in a place where they can't disrupt those with real power.

The limited feedback on the op-ed I have gotten has been focused on how do we make sure MPs won’t use government money to hire cronies as their staff? My short answer is we just have to trust them. This trust will often be misplaced, but anything less won’t serve the desired goals. At any rate, even if they do hire cronies this isn’t a disaster (it happens in the West all the time). I personally think many MPs once given a budget for a researcher and some one (or several people) to do constituency work will rise to the challenge more than many may think. I think giving MPs an office will add a sense of professionalization to the job that maybe for some isn’t there right now. Finally, and I think this is the primary argument: It's a democracy and these are the MPs the people of India elected. No matter what those in policy circles in Delhi (or myself) may think of them, these MPs were the people’s choice and they deserve to have the resources they need to succeed.
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