Deepening Democracy, the Indian one.

For quite some time now it has become evident that policies being adopted by the government and Laws being made by Parliament are not reflecting the views, wishes or the needs of the majority of the people of the country. Policies like FDI in retail, importing hugely expensive and dangerous nuclear power plants, and laws like the SEZ Act or the Civil Nuclear Liability Act are clearly against the wishes and interests of the people but have been pushed through by the government and in Parliament for the commercial interests of large Indian and foreign corporations. The same is evident from the manner in which the government and Parliament has dealt with the Lokpal bill. While all polls, surveys and referenda were showing that more than 80% people favoured the Jan Lokpal bill, the government introduced a bill bore little resemblance to it, and defeated the very purpose of a Lokpal by making it a body selected and controlled by the government and making it dependant on government controlled investigating agencies. When amendments moved by the opposition parties to cure some of these defects were likely to be passed, the government filibustered and engineered disturbances and the bill was left hanging in the air. We are constantly told that Parliament is supreme and that we must respect Parliamentary democracy and that it is inherent in this form of democracy that the people must leave decision making to the wisdom of their “elected representatives”. We know that these representatives are generally getting elected by use of money power and often even muscle power. That is why the major political parties are lining up to induct even those persons who have been kicked out for corruption by the corrupt BSP government on the eve of the elections. We are seeing that only candidates of large, established and moneyed parties have any realistic chance of getting elected, mainly because of the nature of our electoral system in which honest and hardworking social workers who have contested elections as independents or candidates of small political fare poorly in elections.

But even more importantly, we find that after getting elected, these elected representatives normally do not take decisions on policies and laws by finding out what people want, and often such decisions are taken (usually at the level of the party high commands) on the basis of self interest (as in the case of the lokpal bill)or on extraneous and often corrupt considerations. That is why Acts which vitally affect millions of persons like the SEZ Act get passed in Parliament in minutes without any discussion, and the Lokpal bill remains stuck for decades. Parliament these days get adjourned frequently due to disturbances created sometimes by a few M.P.s, and only a small fraction of its time is devoted to real work.

We are told that we have to live with this “imperfect democracy” and that other countries have also learnt to similarly live with such imperfections. But what we are seeing is not an imperfection in the working of our democracy but virtually a total breakdown, where, as we are seeing, the popular will is rarely getting reflected in governance and law making. The challenge before us therefore is: Can we not put in place a system where by the views of the people are directly taken into account in major policy decisions and laws of the State, rather than these being decided by the “elected represenatives” ? Such a system is already in place in tribal areas through the PESA Act which provides for the Gram Sabha (the collective of all adults in the village) to take all public decisions pertaining to the village, though mostly this has remained only on paper. Why can’t a similar model be tried in larger areas such as Blocks, Districts, States or even the entire country? It is true that all the adults of a State or even a Block or District cannot get together to physically discuss an issue as they do in a Gram Sabha meeting. But there are two ways of addressing this problem. If one wants to ascertain the views of the people in a particular State or District on a particular issue, one can have it discussed and decided in each Gram Sabha of that State or district, or one can put it to a referendum to all the people of that State or District. The progress made by IT and Communication technology has enabled a referendum being conducted through internet kiosks (using biometric identification) which can be set up in each village in the country within a year, if the government had the political will to do so. There are still two challenges in such a system of referendums. Firstly, the issue to be voted upon needs to be identified and crystallised into questions which are suitable to be framed for a referendum. For example, there could be many variations of the Lokpal bill. Which versions are to be put up for a referendum and who is to decide this? One way of doing it would be to allow a crystallised issue to be put up for referendum if more than a certain percentage of the population sign up for it. This model is already in vogue in many countries including several States in the US. Thus if 5 or 10% people of the electorate of the Nation, State or the District as the case may be, sign a petition that they want a particular decision to be taken, that proposition could be put to a referendum. If voted upon by a majority of the people, the decision could be made actionable. An alternative model is that whenever a contentious issue arises in the State, district or country (depending upon whether the issue concerns the State or district or the entire country), a neutral body like the Election Commission is charged with the duty to ascertain the most popular views on it and then frame the questions by giving the most popular options, which are then put to vote. Some sceptics ask; how do you expect people to understand complex issues like the Lokpal bill, nuclear energy or genetically modified foods.

“These are matters which can only be understood by experts.”

But are our M.P.s or Ministers experts on these subjects? After all they are deciding such critical matters which affect large sections of society. If they can take a view on it by taking into account the views of experts, so can the people. Some people who feel that they understand the issue sufficiently will vote on their understanding. Others will go by the experts that they trust. Manu may not vote, which is the case even for elections. But this would still be better than decisions being taken only by these “elected representatives” who are often elected on a small fraction of the vote in elections dominated not merely by inadequate knowledge of the candidates, but by money and muscle power and caste considerations. These “elected representatives” are far easier to manage by commercial vested interests than the entire electorate.

Therefore, it would be much safer to trust the people than these elected representatives. Whatever the challenges and difficulties in putting in place such a system, the time has certainly come to discuss this. We need to see how we can strengthen and deepen our democracy and ensure that we really get a truly participatory democracy and thus a government which is really run by the wishes of the people. Participatory democracy is an idea whose time has come.


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