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Like Patel, Bose, Nehru, Indian MPs & MLAs must start at the bottom: in civic, panchayat bodies

Resistance to decentralisation does not come much from All-India Service officers but from state-level political leadership who know their powers of patronage will be curtailed.

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Public institutions in which roles, responsibilities, resources, rewards and expectations are not aligned with the constitutional mandate run the risk of sub-optimality at best, and complete breakdown at worst. Thus, while those in public life would like to take a ‘hands-on’ responsibility for governance and development interventions in their areas, the way to executive power is a ministerial berth after getting elected to the legislature.

But all opposition MPs/MLAs and a majority of those from the ruling party have no ‘formal role’ in administration. However, for all MPs and MLAs, ‘nurturing’ the constituency and getting re-elected is the sine qua non for remaining in the political arena. Their electability is a function of how well they have been able to respond to the ‘expectations’ of their constituents – in terms of social and physical infrastructure as well as the delivery of welfare programmes.

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Primary focus is re-election

In the strictest sense of the term, per the doctrine of separation of powers between the legislature, executive, and the judiciary, the role of parliamentarians and legislators is confined to legislation, comprehensive discussion on the budget, and examination of the statutory reports placed in the House. To be fair, without a secretariat and research assistance, it is not practical for them to go through the reams of paper.

However, as most MPs and MLAs would agree, the bulk of their time is spent not on their parliamentary and legislative work, but on responding to the requests from their electors on any subject under the sun – from admission in schools, hospitals, fee remissions, court cases, police matters to help secure all kinds of licences – firearms to liquor shops – and from matters of land conversion, loan deferrals to the declaration of public holiday after a local deity.

Most of these are executive functions – well within the domain of the deputy commissioner, municipal commissioner or police commissioner. But as public representatives, MPs and MLAs are expected to intervene, even when they know what their constituents are asking for is not within the domain of the possible, and at times beyond the margins of legitimacy. Many parliamentarians and legislators have confessed to me that they have to adopt the public image of a fighter, of one who can get things done – for that is how they will win the next round. It is, therefore, clear that while they are elected to legislate, they get re-elected not on their legislative ability, but their effectiveness in getting things done in administration and letting their stakeholders know that they matter.

No wonder then, that for all the bipartisan consensus among political parties about decentralisation under the auspices of the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1992, the Members of Parliament were quite miffed for they felt that the mayors and chairpersons of zilla panchayats had upped them in their extensive powers of patronage. To mollify them, the MPLAD (or Local Area Development funds) scheme was introduced as a sop to enable MPs to ‘recommend development works in their constituencies with an emphasis on durable community assets based on locally felt needs’. While it started with Rs 1 crore per annum, the amount has now been raised to Rs 5 crore per annum. How could the MLAs be left behind? In many states, the MLAs get up to Rs 3 crore per annum under MLA LAD.

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Bureaucrats in similar quandary

If the MPs and MLAs are in a quandary, so are the district magistrates, municipal commissioners and police commissioners – for they have the legal mandate to carry out an impartial administration and undertake development interventions. This is where the conflict arises. And while some issues can be resolved by tactful handling, mutual understanding and non-adversarial communication – skills that we try to teach at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA) in Uttarakhand – there are often instances when the mismatch is quite pronounced.

This could range from alignments of development projects to norms of compensation for land acquisition to assessment of crop damage or permissions about the time, venue and extent of public gatherings, and in some cases even the sections of law to be applied in criminal cases. The Code of Criminal Procedure talks about magistrates – both judicial and executive as well as police officers and prosecutors – yet the elected representatives feel they have a responsibility to advise, if not intervene.

Also read: Suspending MPLADS funds for coronavirus crisis is another stab at Indian democracy

Saving political patronage

Is there a way out? In my opinion, it is high time that those in public life who want a ‘hands-on’ participation in governance should be encouraged to join municipal corporations and zilla panchayats. Sardar Patel, C.R. Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru had all started their political career as mayors, but immediately after Independence, the powers of mayors were curbed by ambitious chief ministers who brought in area development and core municipal functions as water supply and sanitation under the state governments.

Resistance to decentralisation does not come so much from the All-India Service officers – for they know that they have to work with the political executive – but from the state-level political leadership for their powers of patronage will be substantially curtailed. Large municipal corporations and zilla panchayats, aided by a complement of IAS, IPS, and IFS officers along with their counterparts from the state services, can provide governance and development interventions at the district level, and also raise necessary resources for carrying out the services.

Citizens too will know that they can approach the elected officers at the local level if there are any issues with regard to implementation. This will not only strengthen democracy at the grassroots, but also give more time to parliamentarians and legislators to focus on what they were elected for in the first place – legislate and keep the executive under check.

Sanjeev Chopra is a historian and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Till recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is the second part of the ‘State of the State‘ series that analyses policy, civil services, and governance in India. 

(Edited by Prashant)

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