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Education ups attendance of MPs, criminal history lowers it

An analysis of parliamentarians’ attendance suggests a correlation between their regularity and the troika of moveable wealth, education, and criminality.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2018 09:09 IST
Only 20% of standard (non-minister) MPs that served a full term in Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2014 attended Parliament at least 90% of the time.
Only 20% of standard (non-minister) MPs that served a full term in Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2014 attended Parliament at least 90% of the time.(Sonu Mehta/HT File Photo)

Showing up to work is the least we can expect from our Members of Parliament (MPs). Yet, very few MPs do this with regularity — only 20% of standard (non-minister) MPs that served a full term in Lok Sabha between 2009 and 2014 attended Parliament at least 90% of the time.

Then again, why should we worry about parliamentary attendance at all? After all, parliamentarians are obliged to vote along with their own political party for legislation that has been framed ahead of time. When combined with the fact that most MPs will only serve for one term (only 30% of incoming parliamentarians were incumbents in 2014), what incentive do MPs have to show up in Parliament?

In fact, it is precisely against this backdrop that it is important to analyse attendance in Parliament — if nothing else, it provides a meaningful measure of how seriously our elected politicians are taking their job in a system in which they have strong incentives to shirk their responsibilities. We should be interested in the characteristics of MPs who take their job seriously.

Recent scholarship has focused on worrying trends in the background characteristics of MPs.

Political scientist Milan Vaishnav has written extensively about the startling rise in the percentage of elected MPs facing serious criminal cases — from 12% in 2004 to 21% in 2014 — who use a combination of “money and muscle” to win elections. Elsewhere, I have argued that major parties give tickets to disproportionately wealthy candidates, largely because wealthier candidates are more likely to win elections due to their ability to self-finance electoral campaigns. The pressures to field wealthy candidates are growing stronger, with the median wealth of competitive candidates (top two finishers) rising by more than seven fold between 2004 and 2014.

But is the quality of political representation genuinely affected by growing criminality and wealth among elected politicians? In order to provide some tentative answers to this question, I look at the relationship between the background characteristics of MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014) and parliamentary attendance.

For this analysis, I took MPs that were not ministers and served a full term from 2009 to 2014 in the 15th Lok Sabha for whom there were useable asset data, yielding a total of 362 MPs.

I focus on three MP characteristics — moveable wealth, education, and criminality — from self-reported candidate affidavits made public by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). Moveable wealth is defined as the sum of all assets, like cash and jewellery, that can be quickly mobilised for campaign financing (unlike real estate). The average moveable wealth for an MP in the sample is ~19.6 lakh, more than 39 times the GDP per capita in 2009-2010. Nearly 18% of the MPs in the sample were facing at least one “serious” criminal case (as defined by ADR). Finally, 31% of the sample has a postgraduate degree, compared to just 9% graduates over the age of 25 in the population.

The data on parliamentary attendance are provided by PRS Legislative Services. PRS provides detailed data on parliamentary attendance, participation in debates, questions asked, and authoring of private member bills. I focus on attendance because it should be equally expected of each MP — unlike the other measures which may be a function of the salience of the issue at hand to the MP.

In this sample, the average parliamentary attendance among MPs is 80%. Larger parties, which have greater scope for affecting legislation, display higher rates of attendance. MPs from the six largest parties in the Lok Sabha, each with at least 15 seats and comprising 75% of the sample, had an average attendance of 82%, while the MPs from smaller parties had an average attendance of 72%.

In order to analyse regular attendance, I focus on understanding who attends Parliament at least 90% of the time (the attendance rate of the 80th percentile in the sample). The raw difference in attendance between those with pending serious cases and those without them may not mean much, as those with pending cases also tend to be wealthier (and also have other characteristics in common).

To further isolate the impact of MP characteristics on attendance, I run a statistical model that simultaneously estimates the probability of regular attendance by an MP as a function of the MP’s pending serious criminal cases, level of education, moveable asset wealth, political party, and home state. The results reported here reach the levels of “statistical significance” that statisticians use to characterise meaningful empirical patterns.

Figure 1 shows that less education and criminality are associated with poorer parliamentary attendance. An MP with a postgraduate degree with average moveable wealth and no serious criminal cases has a 25% predicted probability of attending Parliament regularly, 62% more than an MP with the same characteristics but with less education. Of greater interest, an MP without serious criminal cases with mean moveable wealth and no postgraduate degree has a 15% predicted probability of regular attendance, twice as much as an MP with the same characteristics but with a pending serious criminal case.

Figure 2 shows the wealthier the MP, the less likely he/she is to attend Parliament regularly. MPs with between ~10 lakh and ~50 lakh of moveable wealth, with no serious cases or postgraduate degree, have a 16% predicted probability of regular attendance, while crorepati MPs (in terms of moveable wealth) with the same characteristics have a 10% predicted probability of regular attendance.

There is robust statistical evidence that wealthier MPs, as well as those with pending serious cases, are less likely to attend Parliament regularly. Given the rising costs of running electoral campaigns, the trend towards more criminality and wealth in Indian politics is likely to continue. As India’s political class undergoes rapid transformation, it’s time we take greater stock of parliamentary performance or of our political representatives.

(The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research)