The Bengaluru Political Action Committee (B-PAC) has recently released its evaluation of the MLAs of Karnataka. As per its press release, this effort is part of its "commitment to take information about elected representatives closer to citizens to make informed choices …" in the upcoming Karnataka elections, set to be held on May 12, 2018.
MLA assessments, long overdue in India, are ammunition to voters for their electoral choices. Scorecards evaluating each MLA's overall performance must take a 360-degree view, and not just use one single lens, like human rights or environmental protection, etc. These evaluations must be done with a great degree of rigour for them to be genuinely reflective.
The B-PAC MLA rating methodology uses 8 parameters to rate MLAs. The highest weighted criteria pertains to attendance in the Legislative Assembly, the number of questions asked, how the Local Area Development (LAD) Fund was utilised, the ADR-Daksh perception survey results and the legislator's social media – Facebook and Twitter – following. Each MLAs education and criminal record are also factored in, but with a smaller weightage. The B-PAC assessment is available here.
B-PAC's initiative with regard to this is commendable and worth pursuing, but the scorecard unfortunately falls short on the robustness of criteria and rigour in assessment.
Who is an MLA and how should she be assessed?
An MLA's primary job is to make state laws, legislate on state affairs and concurrent subjects. The MLA has control over how the state spends, what projects are sanctioned and vetoed, taxes and grants. Thirdly, the government, the Chief Minister and the State Cabinet are answerable and accountable to the MLAs on the functioning of the state. MLAs have other functions, but these form their key deliverables.
Notice that the laying of roads, drain clearing, street lights provisioning and other such local-area civic works have no place at all in an MLA's job description. That is the job of the local corporation.
Next, a large weightage to the extra-constitutional and minuscule MLA LADs obfuscates the MLA's role in the eyes of the public. It also sends a confusing message to the legislator herself on what her core priorities should be. The Rs 2 crore a year LAD is a blip compared to the thousands, indeed tens of thousands of crores of projects and taxes that the MLA budgets and oversees as part of the legislature. MLAs have a say in proposing, influencing and vetoing large Bengaluru infrastructure projects like flyovers, public transport, policies on garbage and sewerage, affordable housing, zoning, etc.
Any assessment that disregards an MLA's law-making history, state and city income and expenditure management, and holding to account governmental delivery can end up portraying an incorrect picture. Unfortunately, the B-PAC does not measure these and as their own disclaimer states, "This is not to be interpreted as a rating of integrity and quality of work undertaken by MLAs."
Who is a minister and how should she be assessed?
A minister is an MLA who is part of the executive. She helps run the state, makes policy decisions and runs portfolios like education or health. She is accountable to the legislative and if her department underperforms in the delivery of public services, policy or budget, she can be removed from ministership by the MLAs.
For example, a public health disaster in the state will likely cause the Health Minister to resign. Or, if a project under the aegis of the City Minister is scrapped due to public opposition, inordinate delays or substandard work, it can lead to a loss of confidence among the legislation in the ministership. Such officers of the state cannot be rated highly.
Again, this is not considered in the B-PAC ratings.
What else matters and what doesn’t?
Categories like transparency and accountability should be of paramount importance. These can be assessed based on what the MLA shares on her website and social media. Publicly posting what laws she proposed in the legislature, how she voted on various proposals of others, what projects she vetoed or approved, expenditure related details, etc., should be valued highly.
On the other hand, a parameter like the social media presence of the MLA receiving large weightage seems bizarre. It is hard to fathom how the number of followers on Facebook and Twitter could be linked to superior legislative performance. If it is proxying for accessibility, ease of approach to the legislator by her constituents should take precedence – her availability in the constituency office, engagements through citizen consultations, ease of setting-up face-to-face meetings, dialogue, not just followers (who can be be bought and be bots) on social media, etc.
Beyond these, a more rounded assessment should hold MLA positions as public officials and people's representatives to account. It must track what they promised publicly in their own manifestos and speeches to get elected versus their delivery as representatives. Their public stand on various issues, responses to incidents ("these kinds of things happen," in response to sexual assault, for instance), integrity in eschewing corruption, nepotism and other unethical conduct must all have high factors in the assessment.
How to decode the results?
The ADR-Daksh survey is used as one of the parameters in the B-PAC survey. It assesses MLAs by public perception. It is a broad set of questions touching upon accessibility, achievements and trustworthiness, and is a well-rounded perception measure.
However, public perception as a metric is more crucial to the legislators and their parties so they understand what the public and voters think of them and what voters deem important, rather than the voters themselves. Public perception is not an assessment of the effectiveness of a legislator in her function, a factor that would indeed help the voter decide how to vote. Rather, it indicates how other voters may vote.
It has little overlap with B-PAC's stated intention of providing citizens information on representatives so they can make an informed choice this election. In fact, a ranking of MLAs across constituencies is of little relevance to a voter in a given constituency.
An example of how to construct a comprehensive scorecard is shown in the Gender Scorecard for Indian politicians. While it is uni-dimensional in its purpose and meant for evaluating politicians and parties along their gender-friendly axis, it nevertheless provides a framework for approaching comprehensive assessments.
The B-PAC assessment, as with any other, needs to be consumed knowing what it measures and what it does not. In failing to measure some of the core deliverables and key attributes of MLAs and ministers, the rating may not provide voters the parameters needed to decide on their vote. Knowing who is the best performing MLA across constituencies is less important than whether the MLA did her job and how well she did it.
The B-PAC assessment itself will be more usable with a caveat that mentions what it should but doesn't measure and what it does. Such a preamble will give the voters a truer picture to glean from i's assessments and mitigate any sweeping conclusions. Voters will be well advised to look at multiple MLA assessments in addition, to enable their voting decision that is nearly around the corner.
Views expressed are author’s own
The author is a civic activist and political commentator.