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How to engage with the political class

In the recent general elections, CSOs mobilised citizens to vote. Now that the elections are over, there should be sustained efforts to watch the performance of the government and advocate for policy changes and proper implementation of programmes on the ground, say Tonusree Basu and CV Madhukar

Civil society organisations in India have had a relatively weak record of organised engagement with the political class, in recent years. There are very few organisations in the country that have a good conception of the nature of engagement that is required with the political classes to bring about desired change. Even when civil society groups have been successful at getting certain policies changed, in the overwhelming majority of cases the engagement and ‘advocacy’ has been with the executive (government, ministers, civil servants, etc) and not with the legislative (MLAs/MPs).   

There are systemic reasons why the executive tends to dominate the policy space in India. But it is also true that the common perception of politics and politicians in India is one of distrust and disenchantment. The stereotype of the corrupt, self-serving politician is typically reinforced through representations in popular culture. The news media also tends to unduly highlight the horse-trading and mudslinging between various political leaders and parties, and neglect issue-based debates between politicians when they happen. For instance, the debate on the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement last year was one of the finest hours in parliamentary debate in recent years. But that went largely unreported in the media, whereas the ‘cash-for-vote’ video was played over and over again, etching it permanently in our consciousness.  

Even as distrust of politicians among citizens persists, a handful of groups have worked towards mobilising efforts for positive change in our democratic process. At one level, the discourse on strengthening democracy has converged around ideas of encouraging greater participation in the electoral process.  For some, this has been a long-held passion which has resulted in systematic work over the years. For others, at least in some measure, the Mumbai terror attacks came as a wake-up call. Several people who were otherwise indifferent to politics and politicians suddenly realised that their own safety and security was integrally linked to the politics of the country.  

This past election is a good case in point. Ahead of the Indian general elections this year, the efforts of civil society groups towards mobilising voters were significant, especially in urban areas. These efforts focused largely on sensitising young voters in various ways. Campaigns such as ‘Lead India’, ‘Jaago Re’, ‘No Criminals’, the ‘National Election Watch’, and other awareness campaigns were activated through print advertisements, televised ad films, an interactive web presence and cell phone messages. The campaigns focused on encouraging citizens to register to vote, urging political parties not to field criminal candidates, collating and disseminating information about candidates -- their parliamentary performance, criminal records (if any), assets, liabilities, etc. 

Engaging with policymakers 

Now that the elections are over, these campaigns need to make way for sustained efforts to closely watch the performance of the government and advocate for policy changes and proper implementation of programmes on the ground. There are a growing number of groups that have begun to focus on ‘watching’ government, analysing its performance, and advocating for social justice measures. But these efforts need sustained work over the medium- to long-term, to deliver results. 

Over the past three years, our work at PRS Legislative Research has largely focused on analysing pending Bills and briefing MPs and political parties on the implications of legislation. Nearly 200 MPs have used our material in preparing for their work in Parliament, in the 14th Lok Sabha. And in our interactions with MPs, we have learnt a few things about our elected representatives.

  • No individual can be an expert in every subject; this is also true for MPs. However, they have to take policy decisions on a wide range of issues in Parliament and for this they need easy-to-understand, succinctly presented, research support from individuals and groups they can trust.
  • MPs are often extremely sharp in intuitively understanding new concepts. Many have expertise in the subject areas, which they may have practised as a profession (law, agriculture, finance, etc) or in areas where they have done serious legislative work in the past. They are very clued in on a wide variety of issues, to the ground realities, and how things play out.
  • MPs are very busy individuals. So, if we want an MP to read a document, it is best to keep it as short as possible -- preferably limit it to one page.  Long reports and publications are kept for reading ‘later’ on the shelf and are rarely utilised effectively.
  • MPs often get a lot of reading material from various groups recommending what action is to be taken on a certain issue. They also get reports from NGOs, many of which advocate a particular cause. While these may be useful to the MPs, they deeply value meetings with people who can explain a complex concept or issue without trying to push a point of view.
  • There are a number of MPs across the political spectrum who invest the time required to understand issues and reflect on them before taking decisions -- even though the decision might be a view that is different from an option that some people might think is right. This may not be the perception that most educated people share about MPs, but it is something we can say after having worked closely with them. 

Even as PRS engages with MPs in Parliament, more such groups must emerge and provide support to our lawmakers in the years to come. There is also the need for similar work in state legislatures where MLAs are supported by groups, to help them understand issues. 

Engaging citizens 

PRS sees itself as a ‘resource’ group that is available primarily to provide research support to MPs, but also with a keen sense of the need to engage with civil society groups. PRS seeks to be a key resource on the Indian Parliament for various stakeholders -- citizens’ groups, the media, and activists. Providing information on the process and content of legislation and the performance of Parliament as an institution is key to creating a more participative environment for lawmaking. 

As part of our efforts to reach the broader civil society, we have held numerous workshops for journalists and NGO groups. Typically, when we conclude a workshop with journalists, participants are already thinking about the next story and series they would want to write about MPs or issues in Parliament. In the case of NGOs, most often the question of resources comes up. Engaging with elected representatives is a medium- to long-term effort, and quite rightly, as NGOs have often said, it requires significant focus and resources.   

There is another way in which NGOs can benefit from PRS’s work. PRS puts out a regular stream of data and statistics in the public domain about the performance of MPs or about Parliament. The series of primers that PRS has produced are also aimed at interested citizens, and seek to explain parliamentary procedures or institutional arrangements that exist in the service of Parliament. These and other products of PRS aim at engaging a larger set of citizens, beyond MPs.  

The three years of work with MPs have only reinforced our conviction about the need for a greater level of engagement with MPs and MLAs across the country. Given that laws that are made now will provide the framework for governance, often for more than 100 years, there is good reason for all actors to engage in this process to ensure that we pass on a better world to our children in the years ahead.  

(Tonusree Basu and C V Madhukar work with PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009