novel and instructive interactions initiated by Chief Minister of Odisha Shri Naveen Patnaik on 3rd July 2019 over breakfast with newly elected BJD legislators of the State Assembly is indeed trend setting and heartening. His precious articulations during that interaction sharply brought to focus the integrity of legislators, their credentials as representatives of people and their legislative behavior which remain central to success of representative democracy and eventual triumph of people’s will which the elected legislators so authentically represent in their capacity as MLAs. Naveen Patnaik's appeal to MLAs to remain with people is evocative of similar appeal made in Britain to bridge the gulf between people and MPs
Chief Minister’s wise counsel that MLAs should remain close to the people, work keenly for them and dedicate themselves for their service and well being assumes vital significance in the context of erosion of the image of the legislative institutions and alarmingly diminishing dignity of people’s representatives. There are several factors behind such loss of people’s faith on legislatures and people's representatives. It is not specific to India. Even in developed democracies like Britain such fears and apprehensions have been expressed by none other than the UK Parliament itself.
In 2009 in the United Kingdom when a major political scandal involving misuse of allowances and expenses by MPs of British Parliament shook the nation people expressed anger and anguish against the functioning of the Parliament and its elected representatives. The House of Commons Reform Committee examined the issue and submitted a report titled "Rebuilding the House". It observed that "Public confidence in the House and in Members as a whole has been low for some time, but not as low as now. It is not too much to say that the institution is in crisis."
In 2015 the Speaker of the House of Commons presided over a Commission to bridge the gulf between people and Parliament in digital age and submitted a report titled “Open Up”. In that report he observed “....citizens appear to operate at a considerable distance from their representatives and appear ‘disengaged’ from democratic processes. The jargon and practices of the House can be alienating and the sheer weight of information about politics, now available, can act as a wall, keeping the citizen out of the mysterious world of Westminster.”
It clearly proves the point that the representative bodies and elected representatives do not enjoy the confidence of people and it is a serious matter of concern in India and many other parts of the world.
In juxtaposing the above observations emanating from the British House of Commons with the words of Shri Naveen Patnaik one gets an unmistakable impression that the legislative behavior centered around people, their aspirations and frustrations and anxieties can enrich parliamentary democracy. Exemplary legislative behavior and integrity of legislators can enable people's representatives to use politics and legislative institutions as an instrument for promoting people's all round development. Therefore, Shri Patnaik’s passionate appeal to the elected MLAs to remain with people and work for them is very timely and its practical implementation can put an end to citizen’s disengagement with elected representatives and the legislatures. Such an approach makes us recall the words of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik who while receiving the award of ideal Chief Minister in Pune in 2018 had said that 'when people are at the core of politics there would not be any anti incumbency'.
In fact in the same event he put more elaborately with honesty of intentions and said with conviction "...election is not important, but change and transformation is important. If you love your people, you don't fight for elections, you fight for change and transformation." Those wonderful and noble expositions of the Chief Minister are coextensive with his sincere advice to the newly elected MLAs that if they worked for people by keeping themselves away from corruption it would be easy for them to get elected time and again and it would be easier still to manage elections. He gently cautioned them that if they worked keeping in mind only elections the result would be just the opposite. These valuable lessons on ethics and ethical behaviour are of utmost importance when there is universal apprehension that there is serious ethical deficit in public life and it needs to be addressed by taking concerted measures.
It is instructive that he sensitized the MLAs about their bounden duties to see that numerous Government schemes are implemented effectively and ensure that people's problems are attended to with urgency and those are accorded priority to solve them. In essence and substance his appeal stressed on duty of elected representatives to serve people. It is evocative of Mahatma Gandhi's immoral words that "the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service of others". Naveen Patnaik's appeal to MLAs to refrain from corruption is reminiscent of measures taken in Britain for ensuring financial integrity of British MPs
Another invaluable appeal of Chief Minister to the MLAs is that they should eschew their greed and temptation for money and always stand by poor people in their trials and tribulations. He also told them to lead a simple life and deal with people in a decent and polite manner. His cautionary words that life of people's representatives based on opulence and arrogance would create unbridgeable gulf between them and people merits serious attention by the MLAs.
Such exhortations arousing the conscience of the newly elected BJD MLAs remind one of the 1994 report of Nolan Committee on Public Standards of UK. It was established to suggest ways and means of upholding public standards which suffered decline by questionable conduct of some MPs of the British Parliament. It observed that there has been “A fall in public confidence in the financial probity of MPs” and recommend several measures to address the problem. It prescribed seven principles of public life out of which the principles of "selflessness" and "integrity" deserve special mention as these closely correspond to what Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik told the newly elected MLAs.
On the principle of selflessness it observed, “Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.” And on Integrity it observed, “Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.”
In India the fourth report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission on Ethics in Governance brought out in 2007 stressed on higher ethical standards for legislators and observed, "Among the four pillars of an ideal democratic structure, the legislature has the most important position. It is the expression of the will of the people and the executive is answerable to it. This demands that the requirement of ethical standards for the executive must be preceded by an equally emphatic requirement of ethical standards for legislators".
Therefore, Shri Naveen Patnaik’s appeal to the MLAs to keep themselves away from financial or monetary greed is a categorical imperative for upholding the sanctity of their status as representatives of people. Unfortunately the purity and integrity of public interest which is associated with their exalted status is often severely compromised by unethical practices and activities of those holding public offices. By keeping common people at the centre of their concerns the real purpose of their public life would be served effectively.
It is evocative of talisman of Mahatma Gandhi. It appealed to people to recall the face of the poorest of the poor to take a decision when self remained too much with the individual. It is worth quoting the text of the talisman.
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”Elected Representatives must be non-partisan
Shri Patnaik made a significant point while interacting with newly elected MLAs. He said that while contesting elections they were of a certain party and after getting elected they represented all people of the constituency regardless of who voted for them and who did not. He drove home the point with a sense of profound conviction by citing his own example as a first time MLA in 2000. He told that on getting elected as an MLA for the first time he called for a meeting of all Block Development Officers and told them very clearly that as an elected representative he represented all people of the constituency irrespective of their party affiliations and as officials they should work for all people without fear or favour and without taking into account any partisan considerations.
In saying so the Chief Minister was stressing on a vital point that an elected representative of people has to perform his duties beyond partisan considerations. Such notions defining the bipartisan spirit of a people’s representatives is of seminal importance for our body polity which has numerous political fault lines and cleavages based on political persuasion and ideologies often creating massive problems for forging unity, harmony and solidarity of people. The statement of Chief Minister is reminiscent of idea of first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru that a Member of Parliament represents not only his or her constituency but the entire nation. It also reminds the wise words of Edmund Burke who in 1774, after getting elected from Bristol, told his electors "You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament". Mahatma Gandhi wanted elected representatives to be untouched by pomp and glamour
During our epic struggle for independence the issue of Council Entry became a contentious issue and Mahatma Gandhi extended his conditional support to it. He made it clear on 19th May 1936 that all those who entered the hallowed portals of Councils should remain tuned to constructive work involving promotion of Khadi, establishment of Hindu- Muslim unity, abolition of untouchability, spread of national education, organisation of village industries, etc,. It meant working with people, giving primacy to their problems and taking forward the cause of Swaraj. He, therefore, said that “Swaraj will come only through an all round consciousness of the masses” and hoped that majority of those who would enter the Councils would remain “....untouched by the glamour of Council Work”. Legislatures must be used to eradicate poverty
In fact the essence of what Chief Minister Patnaik told the newly elected BJD MLAs is that they should not be caught by glamour and glory associated with the high position they got because of their elected status and should remain grounded by performance of their duties based on high and exemplary standards of conduct. The appeal of the Chief Minister to the MLAs was rightly described by leading Odia daily, the Sambad, in its front page on 4th July, as an exhortation to them for adopting Gandhigiri. In fact what the Chief Minister said to the MLAs constituted the essence of Mahatma Gandhi's worldview.
While addressing the Gujarat Political Conference on 3rd November 1917 Mahatma Gandhi expressed his desire to have a Parliament for India in that year itself and stated that the august institution of Parliament would be used to eradicate poverty from India. At a time when the Naveen Patnaik Government has expressed audacity of hope to make Odisha poverty free by 2024 and there is a strong economic possibility to realize that goal, the larger purpose of his appeal to the newly elected MLAs for leading a simple life, behaving politely and refraining from corruption has to be seen in this context. His appeal indeed augurs well for scripting the success of legislative behavior informed by ethical outlook and basic values of parliamentary democracy.
- The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.