Barring the traditional political opponents and professional media nit-pickers, Narendra Modi wowed his audience with his Independence Day address to the nation from the Red Fort.
However, the Prime Minister is no political innocent, and thus his words have to be parsed for deeper meaning and intent. The speech had so many elements of old and new content that one can spend weeks analysing it, but the purpose of this article is to look closely at his subtle political messaging by expanding on just one portion of it: his schemes for members of Parliament (MPs).
It was PV Narasimha Rao who discovered the power of empowering MPs directly by giving them funds under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS). Subsequent Prime Ministers have duly inflation-indexed the scheme and each MP now gets to play around with Rs 5 crore every year. Between them, our MPs in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha receive Rs 4,000 crore every year – and Rs 20,000 crore over a five-year term.
This is huge, and MPLADS is one reason why recent governments have been politically stable even though most have been shaky-looking coalitions.
My own personal view is that MPLADS is iniquitous (as it privileges and benefits incumbent MPs), leads to lots of corruption, and the money could usefully be spent to bankroll state funding of elections without additional costs.
However, Modi has other plans for MPLADS – to realign the interests of MPs with his own priorities. This is why he exhorted MPs to use MPLADS funds for developing toilets for schools in their constituencies. He said: “One task which I would like to begin today is toilets in all schools of India and separate toilets for girls. Only then the girls will not drop out of schools. I urge all Members of Parliament to use their MPLAD funds for the construction of toilets in schools for one year.”
But will MPs heed his advice? Why should they spend funds according to Modi’s priorities? The answer probably lies in his new scheme – the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana – under which “every MP has to develop one village in his or her constituency into a model village.”
Though we will have to wait till 11 October – Jayaprakash Narayan’s birth date – for details on the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, the implications are that MPs will have more money to spend on their constituencies.
Put another way, the Adarsh Gaon scheme could be MPLADS squared. MPs will have more funds at their disposal. Unless the intention is the scrap MPLADS after the Adarsh Gram scheme takes off, but we don’t know that yet.
We can only guess what the thinking behind all this is. These are my conclusions.
First, by focusing on MPs’ funds as important drivers of constituency-level politics, Modi reduces the influence of party bigwigs both in his own party and in those of the opposition. The interests of MPs are not coterminus with those of their party bosses. Despite party affiliations, they may thus want to give Modi an attentive ear.
Second, Modi’s exhortation to use existing MPLADS funds for building toilets may be more than just an exhortation. The nodal ministry of MPLADS is the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, now under Minister of State (Independent Charge) Rao Inderjit Singh, who is a Congress import to the BJP before the last Lok Sabha election. He will thus owe his loyalty directly to Modi rather than the BJP. He also doubles as Planning Minister, where Modi has heralded another big change by abolishing the Planning Commission and announcing plans to put in a new think-tank in its place. Modi will thus have a clear say in how MPLADS is run. With 282 BJP MPs and another 40-and-odd in the Rajya Sabha, nearly half the MPLADS funds will be handled by MPs in his own party. The non-BJP MPs may have no reason to follow Modi’s request to put money on toilets, but if their funds are not focused like those of BJP MPs, their national impact will be low. In fact, the BJP can target them for wasting funds if the funds go for projects that have low impact.
Third, the announcement of the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY) means all MPs will get more money to play around with in creating their own versions of “Adarsh Gaons”. Once again, BJP MPs will benefit the most, but other parties’ MPs will have a vested interest in not destabilising the NDA government due to this access to new funds for their constituencies. They have a stake in political stability.
Fourth, under SAGY, Modi said MPs have to develop one village a year, or five during a full parliamentary term. The scheme, though launched this year, will be fully operational only in fiscal 2015-16, and Modi said that after 2016, “a parliamentarian should develop two more villages by 2019.” The year 2016 is when the complexion of the Rajya Sabha MPs will change after the new BJP-filled state assemblies send in their MPs. As things stand, BJP and NDA allies are under-represented in the Rajya Sabha. After 2016, they will have larger numbers. This means the acceleration of the scheme will be to the BJP/NDA advantage closer to the 2019 general elections.
The short point is this: Modi’s political approach is to talk directly over the heads of political and other power brokers to the grassroots – and this applies to his own party, his own MPs, his own bureaucrats, or the nation at large. This not only enhances his power to get things done, but also ensures that the messages his gives are not garbled by middlemen.
The announcement on MPLADS-for-toilets and Adarsh Gram scheme is one of a piece with Modi’s strategy to get MPs on his side, never mind their bosses.
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Updated Date: Aug 16, 2014 15:11:20 IST