In a nation waking up to ubiquitous fiscal corruption, why aren’t we challenging the very source of it?

“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In a nation waking up to ubiquitous fiscal corruption, why aren’t we challenging the very source of it? The greed for power is common amongst unstoppable leaders, both elected and otherwise.  The powerful, when the going is good, find it difficult to temper their position of responsibility and trust, with balance and compassion. A consistent stemming of unbridled authority will mean strengthening India’s chosen form of democracy with new amendments.  After 60 years of survival, remarkable as it may be, we have reason to question what is seen as sacrosanct and modify all that is not ideally equipped to handle a truly modern state.

While the zhola wallas continue to chase mere symptoms, clamouring to seize unaccounted wealth, elected Representatives express their outrage at the demands made by social workers as unconstitutional.  In fact people who want to serve people – both honourable members of civil society and those elected to public office – when seen in open confrontation seem to be driven by a macabre play of power.  Both perhaps, are missing the larger issue at stake.

Notwithstanding the drubbing the ruling party got in Tamil Nadu, replacing it with one equally unclean, the poor janta will in all likelihood continue to survive on the 15 paise that will dribble down from every rupee spent on their behalf.  Most of our population does not know the difference between the 64 crores of Bofors or the 176 lakh crores of 2G Scam.  The zeros even if they came back to the exchequer, may not lead to bettering the quality of life for the millions that have rarely touched a 500 rupee note.

So before every political party makes routing out black money as their main election plank, why doesn’t some empowered committee work towards evolving a more practical system of representation that does not owe its existence to the support of tainted money? Honest representatives who are answerable and perform as promised and who are not prone to betraying their faith every five years will not happen with or without Lokpal.  The more critical issue at hand therefore is to work for a change from a defunct representative democracy into a more modern participative democracy, wherein a far more rigorous and regular grievance redressal mechanism is put in place. We need to examine the challenges implicit in direct referendums, the possibility of the right to recall corrupt politicians or put in their place useless government functionaries.

The study in constitutional theory addresses two important theoretical issues.  First, the relationship today between legal sovereignty and popular sovereignty, and secondly whether in a globalized age it remains possible to mobilize a deliberative democrative process across a polity, engaging the people meaningfully in public reasoning. Four disciplinary streams of work need to connect: empirical political science, doctrinal public law, legal and political theory and public outreach. All these are not new ideas at all. They have just been knocking around being sidelined by media savvy do-gooders and put in cold storage by self-seeking governments weak in the knees.

Devices such as initiatives, referendums, and other types of direct votes have increased in use throughout the world over the past two decades and are central to governance in many other democracies. Switzerland utilizes referendums as an integral process, basic for policy making whether for constitutional amendments or legislative enactment.  Australia and Ireland use them to effect constitutional changes. Initiative and referendum devices are also widely employed in many American states. In Canada, there is an increasing discussion at all levels of government about the use of referendums to foster greater ‘democratization’ of political life.

Although Sweden provides for both binding and nonbinding referendums, most of its late twentieth century referendums were advisory to the legislature.  Other countries use the referendum process to approve constitutional amendments (France), vote on independence (Puerto Rico), recall politicians from office (Venezuela), determine public policy directly (Brazil), or decide European Union membership (United Kingdom).

Born just after Independence, I am not ashamed to admit that I have never voted in any election.  Yes, I come from the much maligned apolitical class of the privileged, but my family has known deep political affiliation and public service. Yet on principle I have never been able to accept giving my good chit to any party that leaves me uncomfortable with their last minute choice of candidate thrust on my neighbourhood.  And I am not talking about party less democracy.  I have since college been a part of most forums that ask for a box on ‘no vote’ as part of the design for a ballot, that is also counted, collated and taken note of. There are very specific demands that will help educate us about the appropriateness of a candidate from a party or otherwise. My inquiries have never been met at the time of elections and I have simply refrained from choosing the lesser of an evil.  Voting may be touted as my sacred personal duty etc. but I think it is worse to let the system fester – election after election, each time dismissing our incompetence to improve as a fait accompli.

Every five years, I look for that small news column filed from an unheard of village that has en mass refused their right to vote. Not allowing political campaigners to even enter the neighborhood is the substance of a big news story never positioned in the way it deserves.  On investigation I have always found that the reasons people give for being fed up with recurring charades are quite politically mature.

In one village in Bundelkhand where the Bhoodan movement had taken shape, a few educated youth had put together the political manifestoes of each party over four general elections giving people a bird’s eye view of the issues taken up and ignored, their impact on local matters, listing all the requests made in the past and the promises un-kept and forgotten. This report card was posted on the village chaupal and sent to each candidate who aspired to contest. Of course the accuracy of an astute people’s diligent stocktaking kept most vote hungry Neta’s from appearing anywhere near the village! Of course the problems of the village were not solved either – but honest people came to help and their problems were taken serious note of.

Today there are sciences and technologies that make possible for people to voice their consent on complex issues of governance at all levels. Referendums need not imply ‘the tyranny of the majority’ and need not be binding. Mapping our population and putting civil amenities in the hands of stakeholders can also facilitate putting civil rights to popular vote. Alas, we are prone to do less and less with more and more while duplicating expensive systems of registering eligible citizens, having them counted and recounted and becoming accountable.

In a decade when we are told most of India will be better connected we will be ready to take on our representatives as yet only visible in capital cities. Can multilogues with rural people become possible on a more energetic and sustained basis?  Furthermore why is it not possible for the ‘unelected’ or ‘unelectable’ civil society leaders to seek a vote for themselves from Indian constituents living anywhere in the world, who are in a better position to appreciate their contribution? Surely Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, Anna Hazare or Shabana Azmi could get a national vote much larger in number than candidates fighting from a single geographical constituency?  Why should politics be the domain of only professional politicians?  An artist or an intellectual may not be voted in by a constituency full of farmers, but does that lessen their capacity to serve the nation from the round house in Delhi?

Six presidential nominations is toothless tokenism in each parliament, paying poor lip service to the contribution of public service by competent professionals. In any case some of these elders are not always as deserving and some are prone to official largess. Couldn’t a percentage of seats be reserved for people whose interests represent the good of the Nation – to be voted in by the nation?  I repeat, significant competencies would emerge if the elections of the future could be so devised, to obtain big political constituencies that are not based on geographical divisions. In fact may I also plead for good Ministers who work hard to serve the nation and who do well with their portfolio to get a better deal for India. Do all such office holders have to return to the hustings to prove themselves from constituencies that they possibly could not have had the time to nurture personally?

Can we evolve a muscular system of communication to make the varied choice of a varied electorate effective at decision making at all levels – from a panchayat to the parliament?  Can technical hardware and methodology of intense dialogue already in existence elsewhere in the world be made applicable to Indians enabling them to vote from issue to issue, whether local, national or international? How will the right to information inform us about the web of motivation that makes power brokers manipulate our lives?  How do we make corrupt practices difficult to hide and harness the overriding ambitions of those who profess to serve selflessly? How indeed does a civic society become accountable? This would help fast forward a draft for mobilizing a fledgling democracy to become more efficient, direct and dynamic?

Maybe the Nation also needs to put all the black sheep in a manger and forget them for a while with benign neglect.

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