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.

Written by
Nick Robinson
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  • Refreshing. After all the forwards one receives about how the expenses on each MP amounts to several crores per month and other such literature denigrating the elected, I found myself sympathizing with and defending the MPs in most conversations.

    Even the fear that the posts of researcher etc will be given out to cronies is unfounded if one takes into account all the powers that are left in the discretion of the MP (Though they may be relatively small and smaller than they should be they are quite substantial. Why then should the MP not hand out contracts to his cronies for executing works under MPLAD which involves a far larger amount than a researcher's salary).

    PRS does seem to have made effort in this direction. If personal research teams to MPs seems to be too radical an idea, bodies like PRS could possibly be entrusted with the task of being research bureaus for the MPs and also taking on specific research projects requested by the MPs which would be state funded. This would probably also solve the problem of cronies being appointed as researchers.

  • dear nick, thanks for this excellent post. i have felt your irritation with lazy journalism that tarnishes all politicians as crooks for a while. we certainly lack legal academics like Tomkins and Harlow who have taken the political process as seriously as the legal one.
    i do think, however, that the problen with our MPs is structural. the party-executive dominated westminster model leaves little room for the individual politician. anecdotal evidence suggests that the committees do a lot of work, but they are so opaque that we never find out about them. but even if the committee system is made more transparent, the role of a legislator who is not a member of any committee remains dubious. the original westminster parliament has been debating the issue of reform for some time now. some intersting documents in this regard are available here