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March 7, 2011

Incentive for MPs to be accountable to their voters

The second day of the budget session of Parliament saw disruptions as several Lok Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) from Telangana walked into the well of the House. While the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate the 2G spectrum allotment was the main issue that derailed the previous session of Parliament, earlier sessions have seen disruptions on many types of issues such as pricing of sugar, land acquisition for highways, delays in preparation for Commonwealth Games and so on. Our parliamentarians often resort to interrupting the sitting of the house rather than go through the cumbersome process of debating various issues, weighing the arguments, and taking a decision.

The question hour often becomes the biggest casualty of this process. This means that MPs lose an important tool to enforce the accountability of the government to Parliament.

Some quick-fix solutions have been proposed, especially to rescue the question hour.  One of these is to start the day with zero hour, so that MPs who are seized with an urgent matter can make their point; the question hour could be shifted to the afternoon. Though such measures may rescue the question hour, there are at least three fundamental issues that break the link between the MPs and their electors, and reduce the incentive for MPs to invest the resources to examine issues carefully.

The anti-defection law works as the biggest disincentive for MPs to critically analyse bills and issues before Parliament. If a whip is issued, the MP runs the risk of being disqualified from Parliament if he fails to follow the party line. This implies that the MP would be unable to represent the interests of his electorate or to vote according to his conscience on most matters. As the MP knows that he does not have the freedom of choosing his vote, and is effectively only contributing to the total number of votes “owned” by his party, why would HE invest the resources to understand issues? Take a hypothetical case. Suppose there is a bill introduced by the government that adversely affects the rights of people living in hilly areas. A ruling party MP from an affected constituency cannot vote against the bill, unless he is willing to stake his seat on the issue.

He can cite the anti-defection law to justify his voting decision. That brings us to the second issue. Does the MP need to justify his stance? Most bills in Parliament are decided by voice vote. That is, members express their support or opposition by shouting out “ayes” or “noes”. The Speaker decides the verdict based on her judgement of which side had more support. Any MP can contest this ruling, and demand for a division (electronic voting). However, MPs rarely use this facility. Other than constitutional amendments—which require a two-third majority, and which, presumably, the human ear cannot judge—and confidence votes, very few bills are voted in this manner. This implies that there is no record of any MP’s vote on most bills. Indeed, one doesn’t even know whether the MP was present in the House during the vote.

One argument could be that the anti-defection law makes the process of an MP’s vote just an academic exercise. But stretching that argument to the limit, one can say that only party whips need to attend Parliament, and that their votes shall be weighted according to the party strength! Also, in our hypothetical example, does the citizen in the MP’s constituency have the right to know how the MP voted?

Most advanced democracies do not have an anti-defection law. Also, most votes are recorded. This enables voters to judge the MP’s performance at the time of the next election. One just has to recollect how the United States presidential candidates had to defend their positions on the Iraq war vote. In Britain, on which our parliamentary system is modelled, most votes are recorded. Parties also permit free vote on most issues that are not core to their basic principles. In any case, in the absence of an anti-defection legislation, the maximum penalty for an MP who defies the party whip would be expulsion from the party—he continues to retain his parliamentary seat. Websites such as theyworkforyou.com track the voting behaviour of British MPs and empower the electorate to ensure transparency and accountability.

A third issue that reduces the representative nature of an MP is the electoral system of “first-past-the-post”.  This system works well when the contest is between two major parties. However, in a multi-cornered election (such as in Uttar Pradesh, where four major parties contested most seats), a candidate may win with a minority of vote share. Indeed, in the last Lok Sabha elections, only 120 of the 543 winners got more than half of the votes in their constituency. One possible solution is to move to a list system, in which parties are allocated seats based on their national (or regional or state) vote share; they would then decide which person would occupy those seats. This system ensures that parliament is more representative of the vote share of various parties. However, there are several disadvantages. The system increases the relative power of party bosses. It also breaks the link between the representative and the voter, as there are no geographical constituencies. Some countries—for example, Sri Lanka, Germany and Scotland—have a mix of the two systems. Another solution is to have a two-stage election with a run-off between the top two candidates. France and Brazil use this system for presidential elections. However, this increases the cost of elections and delays the verdict.

The British parliament is considering a third system called the alternative vote. Every voter gives preferences for the candidates. If no candidate gets 50 per cent of the first preference vote, the worst-performing candidate is eliminated and his second preference votes are distributed, and so on. This system retains geographical constituencies while making sure that the elected candidate figures in the top few preferences of a majority of voters.

Despite all these three disincentives, a majority of the MPs work diligently to understand and analyse the issues before Parliament. However, a vocal minority of MPs often disrupts parliament. Measures that increase the transparency and provide information about the activities of individual MPs could work to increase their accountability to their electors. While these may not yield all the desired results, it is important that there is a public debate on ways to improve the functioning of Parliament.


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