Here’s a simple question. What are the responsibilities and duties of the person who will be your member of legislative assembly (MLA)?
Frame laws and policies, ensure growth and development, attest documents for citizens, build infrastructure, clean gutters, and so on the list goes. A straw poll that I conducted in the past week in a middle-class housing society, a college class, suburban trains, rickshaw queues and a slum showed what citizens expect of their MLAs. These are expectations. People were not sure what their duties really are.
The straw poll was then extended to a few candidates of major parties contesting from Mumbai. And what do we have? Those who seek to be the chosen ones have even vaguer ideas about an elected representative’s duties. We have to work for development, was the one line repeated over and over again by the contestants – some in the fray for the first time, but a few seeking re-election.
It’s a bit like striving hard – really hard if you consider the harsh October sun and the occasional storm as a candidate addresses three to six meetings a day – to land a job in which you are not quite sure what to do and what your key result areas are. A well-paying job with ambiguous, or non-existent, parameters of evaluation.
A few diligent MLAs happily distribute what they call ‘report cards’, flashy booklets replete with embarrassing self-praise. Advocacy and citizens’ organisations have evolved ways to judge MLAs; questions asked in the Assembly, money spent on projects being some of the criteria. But none of these fall into the ambit of responsibilities and duties of elected representatives. The Constitution of India, an otherwise instructive volume, is silent about this.
Aghast at this state of affairs in the world’s largest functioning democracy, a citizen filed an RTI application in 2009. Delhi’s Dev Ashish Bhattacharya began with the Election Commission, was tossed to the Union ministry of parliamentary affairs which, in turn, sent his irreverent questions to the ministry of law and justice.
Eventually, two years later, the Lok Sabha secretariat told him there was “no provision either in the Constitution or the rules of procedure and conduct of business in Lok Sabha that define the duties of members of Parliament or through which the accountability can be fixed on non-performing MPs”.
The legislative assemblies in Bihar, Assam, Kerala and Haryana affirmed this in their own words. Only the Sikkim Assembly informed that in the rules of procedure, it would be the MLAs’ “prime duty to maintain communal harmony and peace among the people”.
What’s it in Maharashtra? No one bothered to answer. Presumably, we fall into the category of Bihar, etc.
To be sure, MLAs have powers and privileges. Their powers include the following: legislative powers to make laws under article 246 of the Constitution on items in List II (state list) and List III (concurrent list); financial powers to control the state’s finances and pass budgets; executive powers to oversee the government’s functioning; and electoral power to elect the President.
The MLAs’ privileges are legendary, from perks of all kinds to immunity from prosecution in some cases. In fact, the privileges are so wide and given to such liberal interpretation as to intimidate citizens and the media. There have been periodic demands to codify these privileges, but MLAs who gladly give themselves salary raises have ignored such demands. It’s hard to forget the privilege that Kshitij Thakur sought as MLA after allegedly beating up assistant inspector Sachin Suryawanshi, in the state legislature, who had dared to fine him for speeding on the Bandra-Worli sea link.
As for responsibilities towards their constituents, which aspiring MLA has even stopped to give these a thought? They all prefer the ambiguity.