What do MPs do?

This winter session of Parliament, in which the opposition and the government exhausted so much political capital over forcing and winning, respectively, a vote on foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail came to a rather quiet close this week. In the days after, as number crunchers conclude an audit — hours lost to adjournments, volume of legislation taken up, passed, etc — it is an opportune moment to inquire, what is it that members of Parliament do?

Or, as a former Labour member of Britain's House of Commons poses it in a collection of writing, Doing Politics, what are MPs for? Walking through the steps of Tony Wright's answer is instructive, not least because it casts in clearer relief the lack of disquiet this month over the crisis framed by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha when he threw his hands in the air and suggested the extreme step of rescheduling Question Hour or even abandoning it altogether. (As an indication of the magnitude of the abandonment already happening, according to an aggregation by PRS Legislative Research, in the winter session till December 18, the Lok Sabha had taken up only 41 of the 360 questions listed for oral answers, and the Rajya Sabha only 33.)

Wright's question is posed amidst his larger ambition to present a defence of politics and politicians in these times when their absolutely pivotal role in underwriting basic liberties in a democracy is so glibly discounted. He notes that breaking down the job description of an MP to its bare essentials — of seeing to one's constituents, voting in divisions, and serving on committees — does not quite capture the nature of the task. Neither, he adds, does a more thorough list of the functions an MP performs tabulated by a Commons committee: such as supporting her party in Parliament, in government or in opposition; representing constituents individually and as a constituency; holding the government to account by scrutinising its functioning, challenging it and nudging it in certain direction; initiating, scrutinising and giving final shape to legislation; shaping policy, on the floor of the House and in committees, and explaining her party's position to the public.

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