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Does being on television make Parliament more responsive to voters or encourage MPs to play to the gallery?

Updated: February 21, 2014 8:58 am
Depriving MPs of the oxygen of live coverage may well have been one of the unspoken (and controversial) motivations behind the cameras being switched off. Depriving MPs of the oxygen of live coverage may well have been one of the unspoken (and controversial) motivations behind the cameras being switched off.

A technical glitch, as the CEO of Lok Sabha TV claimed? Or a “tactical glitch”, to use Sushma Swaraj’s memorably (and presumably deliberately) oxymoronic formulation? Whatever the cause, all kinds of people had reason to be upset about the unannounced blackout of the live television feed of the Lok Sabha just as MPs began deliberating on the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. After all, MPs lost an opportunity to stand up and be counted, variously, as champions of everything from Telangana to federalism to the Telugu language. Andhra voters were unable to follow the discussion around carving their state up, as they were entitled to do. And the public at large was deprived of an episode of one of India’s longest-running reality shows, whose stable of props has in recent times expanded to include pepper spray and face masks.

Depriving MPs of the oxygen of live coverage may well have been one of the unspoken (and controversial) motivations behind the cameras being switched off. Many believe, after all, that this is partly responsible for Parliament’s seemingly relentless slide into chaos. But is there any merit in the notion that turning the cameras off might actually help Parliament do more of the stuff it is meant to — such as debate, discuss and pass bills? Of course, there’s no way to tell for sure; it’s possible that our perpetually on-camera MPs would behave exactly as riotously if the cameras were switched off as they do under their relentless glare. (You’d think they’d get bored, but apparently not.) But I would argue, based on my research into the early days of television coverage of the Lok Sabha Question Hour just under 20 years ago, that this idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

For this research, I had to go back to 1994-95 — roughly the year before and after Question Hour began to be shown on TV in December 1994. The problem about going into the past, many would say, is that India was different. Indeed it was. Unlike today, there were no dedicated channels for the parliamentary broadcasts. To get around this, Doordarshan did the best it could: it broadcast the proceedings of the Lok Sabha Question Hour one week, and the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha the next. Odd, perhaps, especially in these “a channel-for-everything” days, but paradoxically useful in helping us figure out what really changed when television began to take Parliament to the public. In essence, the alternating broadcast schedule made it possible to see whether who spoke and what they spoke about was different when MPs knew, ahem, that they were on TV, than when it was just other MPs whose eyes were on them.

What I found wasn’t too comforting for the (perfectly plausible) notion that being on TV, and therefore directly visible to their electorate, would make MPs more likely to bring up issues that concerned their constituents. After spending many months coding every geographical and issue-based mention in oral questions asked during Question Hour, I failed to find any evidence that MPs shifted their focus to their constituencies. Nor was it the case that those MPs who represented urban areas — where, in the 1990s, television ownership and viewership was much higher than in rural areas — spoke more on the weeks they were on TV.

What happened, instead, was that the focus of all kinds of MPs shifted away from representing the concerns of rural voters — measured, for example, by the number of questions about agricultural workers — to those likely to be of greater interest to the TV-watching city-dweller. In general, it would be fair to say that those who lived in areas with fewer TV eyeballs saw MPs of all stripes — including their own! — raise their concerns less when they were on TV. So MPs started catering more to what they thought would interest TV-watchers (who, at that point, were disproportionately urban and middle class) rather than what their constituents might care about. The content of Question Hour became less, rather than more, diverse as a consequence. Everyone wanted to cater to the urban voter.

But rural MPs did not abandon rural issues altogether. They just focused less on them when they knew they were on TV. Another consequence was that prominent MPs (ministers, former ministers or party heads) began to take up more of Question Hour when it was on TV, to the detriment of their less prominent peers, whose opportunities to ask questions in Parliament shrunk. While it’s hard to say exactly what was going on, it appears that parties pushed those they thought would play better on TV into speaking slots — reducing the diversity of voices heard during Question Hour.

Of course, none of this tells us exactly what would happen if the cameras were switched off today. But it does tell us that there is clear evidence that what MPs do with their time in Parliament is affected by whether or not they are on TV. Clearly, transparency has its virtues, and perhaps there will be a point beyond which popular revulsion at MPs’ antics will affect their probability of re-election. But paradoxically, a bit less transparency — perhaps switching the camera off for at least some of the time that Parliament is in session — may help, not hinder, its ability to go about its real business. Or so (recent) history tells us.

The writer, a Boston-based behavioural economist, is vice president at ideas42

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