Civil society advocacy group Mumbai Votes last week released a report analysing the performance of the seven parliamentarians from Mumbai and Thane over the last one year. Founder of Mumbai Votes Vivek Gilani and researcher Avinay Umesh-Sanyogita speak with Zeeshan Shaikh about the report, the need for improved data documenting to evaluate the work rate of MPs and the increasing political apathy in Indian society.
On what parameters should the performance of an elected representative be evaluated?
Vivek: Accountability and performance need to be evaluated on the basis of the promises made by leaders when they are contesting elections and the subsequent steps they take to work towards fulfilling those promises after getting elected. The most effective way is to rank them largely on the performance in tackling issues they have themselves espoused. So if someone has spoken about getting the Mithi River cleaned up, then the parameter that you need to evaluate them on is how much work has taken place towards that promise.
Avinay: One way of evaluating them is through quantitative data about their performance in the House. There is a need to see if promises that they made to the electorate reflect in the issues they raise in the House. Also, the kind of questions they raise in the House, whether they are introducing any private members bill. In some cases, the fulfilment of certain promises will take a lot of time. For example, BJP MP from Mumbai North East Manoj Kotak during the elections had promised to build over one lakh affordable houses in his constituency. This work in all probability will take well over five years to be completed. An honest assessment of Kotak’s performance therefore would be to see if the MP has worked to lay the groundwork for the fulfilment of this promise.
Is evaluating MPs on their attendance in Parliament and the questions that they have raised in the House an honest assessment of their performance?
Vivek: Honestly, judging MPs on their attendance, how many questions they have raised in the House and how much MP Local Area Development (MPLAD) funds they have spent is not the most fair approach in analysing their performance. However, we had to start somewhere and because this data was out there in a raw form, a lot of civil society advocacy groups got into this realm to bring out such reports. This is, however, the beginning. We need to make our work more grounded in social science. We need to see how many times an MP mentions a particular issue in their speech. We are presently not analysing their tweets or social media posts nor looking into their speeches the way we should. Advocacy groups have been making do with the resources that they have but we definitely need to make a course correction in the way we do these reports.
Your report analyzes the performance of MPs from urban centres like Mumbai and Thane. Have these MPs been successful in raising urban issues that affect their constituencies?
Avinay: As part of our report, we tried to document all the promises that these seven MPs made to the electorate. After analysing their work, the sense that we have got is that a majority of them have not followed through with their “top priority” promises or worked towards ensuring their fulfilment.
The guideline for MPLAD scheme calls for focusing on the creation of durable community assets. However, a large chunk of this money by Mumbai MPs is spent on drainage work and construction of toilet blocks. Are you satisfied with the way this money gets used in constituencies?
Avinay: Spending money on building toilets or improving drainage is a low hanging fruit for most MPs. Even when we analysed the spendings of the MPs from the 16th Lok Sabha, the bulk of the money was spent on building toilets and drainage systems. While building toilets is important, it is not the work of the MP to do so. It just perhaps points to the failure of the civic bodies to address this problem. MPs need to understand that there is only a limited number of toilets, or drainage systems that they can build with Rs 5 crore, which is too less for an electorate of 15-16 lakh people. What they need to do instead is monitor and pressurise the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or state officials to work towards ensuring access to such basic services. The MPLAD fund should instead be spent on creating sustainable community infrastructure.
The work of non-partisan civil society advocacy groups is taken seriously in western countries. While your report is pretty comprehensive and detailed, none of the MPs that you reached out to responded to your queries. Why is the work of advocacy groups not taken seriously by elected representatives here in India?
Avinay: It largely has to do with the way politics or democracy works in India. It is patronage based. Culturally also we do not value accountability and transparency. Politics is a reflection of our culture. The need for democracy as a separate entity from society with its own democratic way of being does not get captured in the way our culture functions. Also, there is no culture of this annual assessment of performance — neither from elected representatives nor the media. As of now there is not enough institutional pressure on elected representatives to think that this is important enough to come clean about their performance. If the media with the help of civil society groups starts an annual accountability report of sorts, then I am sure elected representatives cannot continue enjoying the impunity they currently do.
Vivek: We are a consumer culture and increasingly becoming apolitical. We have accepted that all that we want is a CEO. We just want delivery of services. What these services are is the same global package that neoliberalism offers. The privileged parts of society are largely apolitical.
They want services, infrastructure and ecosystems in place for neoliberalism to flourish. The ones who are politically engaged, mainly those who are at the bottom of the pyramid, are much less apathetic. In these parts, performance still matters in terms of electability. However, there, too, patronage plays a part. To a large extent, for many people, issues of how we are to behave towards each other and how we are to be equal in law is not a matter of concern now. The sharpness and competence of civil society to hold representatives accountable has diminished.
Report available on www.MumbaiVotes.com
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