Posted by: Vikram | March 30, 2009

Members vs Representatives

I saw an NDTV video that showed an elderly lady touching Jyotirao Scindia’s feet while he was campaigning in his constituency. I saw that video and thought, shouldnt it be the other way around ? Shouldnt a young, aspiring politician who believes in Indian values touch the feet of an elderly lady. But Indian values aside, in a representative democracy shouldnt the representative feel grateful for the support and adoration of his constituents rather than the constituents feel grateful for him/her being their ‘member’ in parliament ?

The Indian Parliament in New Delhi

The Indian Parliament in New Delhi

In America, both the members of the legislative assemblies and the media refer to themselves as ‘representatives’ not ‘MPs’. Even I, a non-American have been getting emails from ‘my’ new representative in Congress ! I dont want to make any generalist comments, but I feel this reflects a fundamental differnce in how Indian ‘MPs’ and American ‘reps’ perceive themselves. I suspect more often than not Indian legislators think of themselves as members of some exclusive club who can dole out patronage to their constituents as they wish. Whereas American legislators think of themselves as the people’s representatives, who are accountable to their constituents and have to represent their interests in Parliament.

American Congress

American Congress

The Indian masses have done their bit to reverse this attitude, the infamous anti-incumbency phenomena in Indian states is evidence enough. Unfortunately they do not have the time and resources to actually hold their reps accountable. However, India’s middle class can, today more then ever. First by voting and actually doing their part in choosing their member of parliament. Then using their organizational skills, their access to media, the courts, legislation like the RTI to make sure this member actually is a representative.

Jai Ho !

The Indian Parliament image is from the Tamil Wikipedia and the US Congress image is from knowledgerush.com.

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Responses

  1. You are absolutely right. Indian MPS/MLAs consider themselves “rulers” of people rather than their representatives. Jyotiraditya Scindia’s case is a bit different because he family ruled Gwalior and old people still consider him to be their “king”.

    Attitudes are changing and will gather pace in the coming months and years thanks to the global exposure that more and more Indians are getting through television.

  2. Yeah the term public servant is just a platitude that people mouth. In reality we are the servants, they the rulers. Nice post.

  3. Yes, our MP’s certainly think that we should be grateful that they are our MP’s! And you are right when you say that the word ‘representative’ itself indicates that they are there on behalf of their constituency. In India, constituents, just matter when it comes to elections, and they are largely forgotten about, after elections. But we are also to blame, in the sense that we donot demand. In the UK, one can apparently approach the local MP with your issues, and expect some sort of resolution. In India, we do not even expect it out of them. I think, once the middle class awakens and demands, out politicians will be forced to deliver.

  4. Yes, and the flip side of the coin is that even the junta doesn’t do anything to hold their ‘representatives’ accountable. They treat them like kings, rulers who they have little or no control over.

  5. @ Sharmaji, I saw an episode of NDTV’s election express where people in a UP village where there was no electricity had managed to get a TV powered using tractor batteries.

    Change is reaching the most remote parts of India and I hope it empowers people, to demand more from their reps.

    @Nita, yes we are like their subjects. Not just Indian politicians but a lot of the bureaucrats also think of the people as their servants.

    @ Smitha and Vinod, yes people have to demand. And as I said we now have more tools to hold these guys accountable than ever before.

  6. yes vikram the american reps are organized here. i was in washington DC to talk to the legislative aide of the senate and the congress member of our state on an issue. Our mayor calls back — the reps are very “aware ” of the questioning of their constittuents. there are ” eduction/awareness ” meetings conducted by democrats and republics.

    There is a systematisim! to the political madness here.

    it is not ” o my god ” status for the reps – though actually it is. even meeting the legislative aides of the reps ( your issue reaches the rep) and you get an email — and when you go back next year if it is the legislative aide they remember you as an organization — all this for a non citizen !!

  7. Mr Harsh Salve, a very senior advocate in a TV interview had said about the Govt,they treat us like “subjects” and behave like “masters”.So much for democrtic values.Mayawati,Jayalalita,Karunanidhi,they all have their followers on thier feet.God save us.

  8. Vikram, I’ll have to disagree with your assertion that just because the American politicians elected to the Congress are called “Representatives” they somehow perceive themselves as more representative of their constituents. That may be the case for some of them who consider themselves public servants first, but these members of Congress are also quite corrupt and indulge in the same power-play as Indian politicians (or politicians of any country, for that matter) and put party politics and their career above what their constituents may want. One needs to look beneath the shiny surface and PR to discover this – it takes time.

    The system is indeed better in the US when it comes to contacting the office of a Representative (or getting a canned email from them that makes one feel good), but again, that may or may not mean anything, depending on the context and specific issue. And if one is rich and has business to conduct – or money to donate to the Rep’s re-election campaign, then he will get a direct and faster audience with the Rep, whereas rest all have to be satisfied with talking to someone at the Rep’s office. This is not to say that the Reps never help someone in need.

    What one can do is, if a vote on an issue is coming up in the Congress, one can call or email the Rep’s office and let him know one’s views and suggest whether to vote Yes or No. But the Rep is under no obligation to vote ‘Yes’ even if overwhelming majority of his constituents want him to vote ‘Yes’, or if overwhelming majority of those who contact him, tell him to vote ‘Yes’.

    There were many cities and towns that passed resolutions to investigate impeachment of Bush-Cheney during the past 3-4 years, and many of them contacted their Representatives, yet nothing came to pass in the Congress, as party politics trumped representation.

    So, it all depends on the context and specific situation.

    When I was new to the US, I had the exact same perception that American politicians are honest, not corrupt and work for their constituents. After observing the political goings-on for many years, I have been disabused of that notion. 🙂

  9. BTW, my previous comment is not a defense or justification of corrupt MPs in Indian politics, in case anyone interprets it that way.

  10. good post..Nita has said it all…
    this touching feet business makes me gag..

  11. Amit — about the email – I am not talking about canned email – when you get it from the office of the person with their personal email address ( of course we know that it is from them, because we get their visiting cards and emails)

    yes, they do send mass emails too.

    but when you reach the reps with an issue ( difficult to get an appointment with them – one has to use a lobbyist for this ) or sometimes you are just lucky to reach them- seldom happens

    when i went to meet the reps – senate and congress – they said straight – yes or no — will effect he vote banks etc etc — their standing on the issue and if they will sign the bill at least if they support/ and other options on their standing.

    this dekenge, karenge business was not there. – no time wasted on both sides.

  12. @ anrosh, I would agree with you. Definitely the democratic setup is much more evolved here in America, in terms of accessibility and openness.

    @ Amit, I agree that my hypothesis seems very simplistic and indeed it is. My point was to use this difference in terminology to set up a discussion about the values elected legislators in India and America adhere to.

    Obviously, there are corrupt politicians in America as there are everywhere, but one cannot deny that legislators here can be accessed and pressurized by their constituents more easily.

    In my last para, I point out that the Indian middle class now has the tools to pressurize their legislators and demand more.

    @ Chowla saab, yes but I think that is just a reflection of the values our society currently espouses. In every home, there is deference and suppression and it just extends to the public domain.

    @ Indyeah, I wish there will be a day when we can all have a laugh about an MP getting thrashed by his/her constituents.

  13. Vikram,

    I think your observation is spot on. Its not just politics, our civil servant calls himself sarkari afsar and despite earning his salary from our tax paying rupees, they try and lord over us like old English Masters.

    Even after 61 years of independence, colonial residue sticks.

  14. A functioning political system in any country is an indicator of how effective it is in sustaining the “illusion” amongst the people that they are really free.

    The Americans are as enslaved as any other nation, by enormous forces beyond their control : their monetary system, their fractional reserve banking, the Federal reserve, the extraordinary dictatorial powers of the president, the patriot act which strips away their civil liberties and so on and on..

    We Indians should stop looking towards other nations, but instead take the mantle and lead the world towards freedom and democracy. As home to 1/5th of humanity, this is our responsibility. And as one of the world’s oldest civilization, this is our obligation to our ancestors.

  15. I think, across the world, the ruling elite begin to see themselves as the dispensers of patronage, irrespective of their political origins, and irrespective of the nomenclature involved. But the levels of accountability – and therefore the degrees of their behavioural differences, even if mostly superficial – springs to a large extent from the characteristics of the electorate. Are they enquiring enough, or are they too taken up by the compulsions of everyday living to have the time to learn, act and re-act?

    In India, the truly poor segments of the electorate have witnessed sad precedents through the years – of like ‘representative’ replacing like ‘representative’ despite political affiliation – and thus their needs largely being reflected in pre-election promises. This cynicism is further reinforced by the debilitating survival (as opposed to living) compulsions of extreme poverty. Are there then vested interests in not expanding quality education, and other benefits to enhance their quality of life and enquiry – so that the ‘mai-baap’ mentality prevails, and accountability is sacrificed at the altar of patronage?

  16. Agree with you. Pandit Nehru and susequent clarification by the Supreme court that even politicians are public servants has not changed things very much. I suspect it has something to do with the perception of the people that anyone in government is ‘mai baap’, and the elected reps being part of the decision making apparatus of the country are mai baap too. Add the touch of royalty and you have what you have seen on TV. This is not an isolated incident. I believe, even Mayawati does not acknowledge people who donot touch her feet – talk of dalit empowerment.

  17. […] Go here to see the original: Members vs Representatives […]


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