What do people want?

KARNATAKA ELECTIONS

While the public narrative on the Karnataka Assembly elections has focused on the political battle between the Congress and the BJP, the election also presents us an opportunity to examine how MLAs can best represent the interests of the people.

Karnataka is in the midst of a very strongly and bitterly fought election campaign in which both the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP have a lot at stake. In public narratives, the election is a “political war” — a spectre where (largely) non-violent armies battle it out to establish their rule. It is hence, seen purely as a vehicle for a political party to attain power. While this may be a legitimate end of elections, we must also remember that it is fundamentally about choosing 224 representatives for Karnataka. Hence, instead of viewing elections from a partisan political lens, we must also view it as a means by which the interests of people are formally represented. While at one level, elections will always be a numbers game of getting majority to form government, we shouldn’t forget that its primary purpose is forming a legislature which represents the people.

But how can a Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) represent the people? What are the ways in which an MLA can act in the interests of her constituents? The roles and responsibilities of an MLA are not neatly laid down in our Constitution, or in other laws for that matter. In our daily lives, the MLA is often seen as the “go to” person for all kinds of problems within the constituency, whether it is roads, water or garbage. Many of these are actually within the purview of the local government — panchayats and municipalities. Even if some of these concerns are the responsibility of the state government, the MLA does not have a formal role in administering it, since she is only a legislator and not an executive authority.

The mandate of an MLA: While informally, the MLA juggles multiple roles, as a member of the legislature, the MLA is primarily vested with three main functions: making laws, holding the executive accountable and sanctioning public expenditure. Since India has a parliamentary system, law-making in the state legislature is still led by the government. MLAs can, however, propose amendments to government bills and also introduce private members bills and resolutions in the Assembly. While private member bills rarely get passed in India, it is an effective way to draw the attention of the government to any issue.

The principle role of an MLA (who is not a part of the Council of Ministers) is holding the executive accountable and the Question Hour is the primary forum in which this is publicly exercised. In the first hour of every sitting of the Legislative Assembly, the concerned minister is required to respond to the questions submitted by the MLAs in advance. While only randomly selected questions (called starred questions) are answered in the Question Hour, the government is bound to respond to all other questions in writing (called un-starred questions). Along with this, MLAs can also submit motions to raise discussions on “matters of urgent public importance” and “call the attention” of a minister on any matter of public importance.

The third key role performed by a legislator is the sanctioning of public expenditure, primarily through the Finance Bill. The Finance Bill is introduced every year in the budget session to authorise the levying and modification of taxes and public expenditure. MLAs can scrutinise the budget documents and propose changes to the same. Without the legislature approving the budget, the government cannot spend any money. Apart from these primary roles, MLAs are also members of committees of the legislative assembly on various subjects where they can play an important role in monitoring the government in specific domains.

While MLAs are expected to represent the interest of their constituents formally in the Assembly, they also play an informal role in addressing the needs of their constituencies by using their political clout and networks in the government. In fact, it is more for their role in addressing the development needs of the constituency that the people reward MLAs in elections. The developmental role performed by the MLA has been partly formalised with the introduction of the MLA Local Area Development (LAD) scheme in 2001, under which, each MLA can spend Rs 2 crore annually on various developmental works in her constituency. Though the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of LAD schemes in 2010, its existence continues to be an anomaly in the institutional architecture of the state as it conflates the role of a legislator and executive.

One of the reasons why MLAs now focus more on addressing constituency concerns instead of their legislative role is because their powers in the Assembly have weakened. With the passage of the anti-defection law in 1985, MLAs are now bound by the party whip while voting in the Assembly. This has taken away the autonomy of MLAs and made them into puppets in the hands of their party bosses. For MLAs to genuinely represent the interest of their constituents in the Assembly, they should be freed from the party whip. Another reason is the virtual non-functioning of the legislature to perform basic functions. For instance, according to PRS Legislative Research, the Karnataka assembly only functioned for an average of 49 days in a year.

Presently, MLAs are disincentivised to perform their legislative role. While people can see the tangible work done by MLAs in their constituency, they are not aware of what their representative is doing in the Assembly, since very little information regarding the same is publicly available. For addressing this concern, the Assembly secretariat needs to be overhauled by building the capacity of the secretariat staff to ensure that Assembly’s work is properly documented and by creating a website where all relevant information on the Assembly is readily available (as in the case of Parliament). Public disclosure of information on the legislature will foster a system of accountability, whereby the constituents can continuously track what their representative is doing in the Assembly and pressurise her to represent their interests.

(Idiculla is with the Centre for Law & Policy Research, Bengaluru, and Agarwal is with The Quantum Hub, New Delhi)

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