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 on FDI in retail and the import of 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 Parliament for the commercial interests of large Indian and foreign corporations.
The same is evident from the manner in which the government and Parliament have dealt with the Lokpal bill. Polls and surveys showed that more than 80 per cent of respondents favoured the Jan Lokpal bill, but the government introduced a bill that 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 dependent 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, 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 the 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 contest elections as independents or candidates of small parties fare poorly.
Even more importantly, we find that, after getting into legislatures, these elected representatives normally do not take decisions on policies and laws by finding out what people want: often, such decisions are taken (usually at the level of the party high command) on the basis of self-interest (as in the case of the Lokpal bill) or on extraneous, often corrupt, considerations. That is why laws which vitally affect millions of people, like the SEZ Act, get passed in minutes, without discussion, while the Lokpal bill remains stuck for decades. Parliament these days gets adjourned frequently due to disturbances created by a few MPs, and only a small fraction of its time is devoted to real work.
We are told 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 the popular will is rarely reflected in governance and law-making.
Sceptics ask how people can opine on complex issues. But then our MPs aren’t experts: they listen to what experts say.
The challenge before us, therefore, is: Can we not put in place a system whereby 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 representatives”? 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 up for a referendum to all the people of that state or district. The progress made by information and communication technology enables us to conduct a referendum using biometric identification through internet kiosks 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 five or 10 per cent of the electorate of the nation, state or district 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 GM food? These are matters, they say, that can only be understood by experts. But are our MPs 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 they understand the issue sufficiently will vote on their understanding. Others will go by the experts they trust. Many may not vote, which is the case even for elections. But this would still be better than decisions being taken by only 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, 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.