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Participatory Democracy: AAP OPENS NEW CHAPTER, By Dr S Saraswathi, 24 DEC, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 24 December 2013

Participatory Democracy


By Dr S Saraswathi 

 (Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Undoubtedly, the whole world is watching with great interest the entry of a new party to the seat of power in Delhi, India’s capital.  It inaugurates not just a change of guards, but hopefully wholesale changes in the style of governance. Rather, it is the dawn of a new chapter in Indian democracy, no matter how long it lasts or how much it’s able to deliver.


A bold political experiment was launched by the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in keeping with its promises, in resorting to seek people’s opinion on forming a Government. It had all along stuck to the stand of “neither being a giver, nor a receiver” of party support in running a Government. An unusual stunt in the Indian party politics! In fact, a rare show of idealism.


A badly bruised Congress offered “outside support” to AAP to form the Government (first stated as unconditional but backtracked to remove that great generosity in its support) – a role it can discharge with dexterity and remarkable political acumen and a position with which it is very familiar. 


Delhi has been the path-breaker in Indian politics many times in the independent India. The recent elections that ended the 15-year Congress rule under the same Chief Minister for three consecutive terms has indeed raised great expectations of radical changes in politics and governance.


This is particularly due to the attractive innovations offered by the new entrant to party politics, to bring government closer to people – a form of participatory democracy.  AAP has also been harping on the themes of accountability and transparency. It proudly wields its meaningful symbol “jhaadu” (broomstick) to cleanse politics. One cannot ignore that most of its leaders are confirmed social activists of long standing.


The Party is firmly committed to passing the Jan Lokpal bill (and its State equivalent) in its unadulterated form. With its enthusiasm further reinforced by massive victory in the election (though short of majority), it was understandably, as its immediate reaction, averse to accepting the clutches offered by its first political opponent, the Congress, to stand erect. 


The Lieutenant Governor’s invitation to AAP to form the Government did put the party in a dilemma--to accept, or not to accept. Acceptance to form a minority government means dependence on the Congress “outside support”--- considered undependable and suspense-ridden.  Refusal, when the Congress had offered support would have meant lack of confidence in its own ability to govern and sincerity to fulfil its promises. Critics even said that the party was running away from its responsibility after making tall promises. 


The truth is that AAP has no majority to confidently push its agenda. It had sought the concurrence of the supporting party on 18 issues. These include passing of the Lok Pal Bill, granting full Statehood to Delhi, auditing the accounts of private power companies, reducing water and power tariffs, etc. The Congress has pointed out that 16 of the 18 issues could be handled by the Executive without taking these to the Legislature.


On executive decisions also, a ruling party needs consensus (which doesn’t mean unanimity) on many issues. When that ruling party lacks majority on its own, there is more reason to be sure of the promised support.


The duration of Congress support is not specified and AAP is well aware that it may not long last. Normally, in the political game, political expediency dictates the duration. This was proved in the downfall of the Governments headed by VP Singh, Chandrasekhar, I K Gujral and so on.


By the decision to form the Government, AAP has voluntarily accepted a real political test. True to its profession of extraordinary faith in the wisdom of the common people, the party turned to people’s help to decide on forming a government-- a gesture that implies that it isn’t after power and positions, but wants to meet people’s wishes.


It sent 25 lakh-odd letters to people seeking their opinion and gathered responses via sms, phone, and social media. It also held public meetings in several areas, Mohalla Sabhas to gauge public opinion on this crucial issue of Delhi’s immediate political future. More than the substance of public response which conveys the people’s mood, this episode of seeking people’s opinion directly raises questions about the representative system.


There are three models of democracy in vogue – representative, deliberative and participatory.  We have a representative system and have opened avenues for public deliberation of public issues. Some amount of public participation is possible through Panchayati Raj and the Gram Sabha at local levels. 


Public protest and demonstrations, non-violent satyagraha and civil disobedience are also forms of direct public participation in politics, widely practiced in India.  AAP earnestly sought public views directly first on forming a government and after assuming office, the practice is likely to be followed to decide issues.


This is a form of Referendum known and practiced in some democracies to ascertain public views directly on particular issues by voting. Referendum and Initiative work well in Switzerland since mid-19th century because of the small size of the population. Many Latin American countries which are also much smaller than India have introduced these instruments to decide some national issues.  Brazil, the US, and Germany at times resort to these instruments at State and regional levels.


AAP’s Vision Document issued in October 2012 indicates that “as far as possible” decisions will be taken through Gram/ward sabhas and referendums. Local primaries and not party “high command” will nominate candidates for elections. It states that “people must be consulted directly on key national issues”. The first reference made to the people on formation of Government falls in line with the party’s policy.


It is not clear how in a big country like India referendum can yield a true picture of public opinion. Even within Delhi, where voters’ apathy is known and is the cause of low level of voting, is it practicable to ascertain public views by referendum? What if we get overwhelming response as “not known” or “no opinion”?


When the three-tier Panchayati Raj was introduced in 1958 in the heydays of Community Development Programme, a doubt was raised by some leaders about the workability of too many elections. 


Even if reference to the people is restricted to important national issues by AAP, it is doubtful that the common man will make efforts to understand the issues and exercise a free choice and to the nation’s interest. Such reference should, therefore, be restricted to highly important national issues affecting everybody in some way.


People’s wisdom cannot certainly be under estimated. However, it cannot also be ignored that these same people conduct Khap Panchayats and punish couples marrying out of caste, and practice “untouchability” and child marriage. 


Reformist legislations are mostly brought about by legislative bodies under the pressure of small groups of social leaders and not the masses.  The very need for progressive laws arises from the inability of the masses to move with changing needs and values of the larger world. Many social reforms cannot wait for people’s concurrence, but have to be pushed with determination. There is need for leadership.


Citizen participation in governance is needed in a representative system of democracy to prevent the tyranny of parliamentary majority, but not to decide all issues. The experiment of AAP should not appear like shirking responsibility to take decisions and hide behind people’s direct verdict. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

non-p?� fr��r`�rimes and its verbal promises, the nuclear cooperation it has with Pakistan has posed a number of challenges to the world community. There remains the nagging fear of diversion – from civilian to military purposes. Even after joining the NSG, China has not been maintaining the requirements for nuclear trade and commerce.



To what degree, it will disclose the background of its nuclear relationship with Pakistan remains to be seen in the years to come. Undeniably, more transparency is needed in any nuclear cooperation – either civilian or military. India needs to calibrate a strategy and mobilize international public opinion against the ongoing Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation. Better sooner, than later. ----INFA   


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)





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