In the previous article I noted that while the governance process should fulfil the minimum preconditions for civic participation, many of the obstacles are social, and not necessarily political. We then looked at several societal flaws undermining democracy in India.
Social attitudes and change can only be brought about by civil society initiatives. The state can at best play a supportive role by creating a system of high reward and low risk for desirable behaviour and high risk and no reward for unacceptable behaviour. But over the past five decades the civil society's initiatives in this regard has been stifled by the all-pervasive state. Therefore there has to be a concerted effort to make the state an effective and just instrument for social transformation, even as society has to be made more conducive and fertile for the flowering of a genuine democracy.
The American liberal democratic state did not at first recognize women and blacks as equal citizens. However, the glorious ideals of the American state inevitably came in conflict with unjust institutions and ugly practices over a period of time. This led to the Civil War in 1860's resulting in massive bloodshed. About 10% of all American population died in the effort to liberate the blacks and give them a vote. Similarly, the democratic ideals and institutions could not for long accept denial of voting rights to women, and in 1920's the struggle of woman's suffragettes bore fruit. The 1960's civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King was largely a result of the ideals of the state and legal structure coming into conflict with the social rigidities in the southern States. Ultimately the society had to yield and things were never the same again.
In other words, a modern liberal democratic state based on the doctrines of human rights, universal franchise, people's sovereignty, and rule of law is bound to come into conflict with traditional social rigidities, undemocratic practices, irrational prejudices and shameful hierarchies. But for such conflict to arise and lead to social transformation, the fundamental requirements of a democratic state should be fulfilled. For instance, if the state does not create conditions for free and fair exercise of universal franchise through proper voter registration and voter identity cards, then a flawed democratic process actually promotes polling irregularities and perpetuates feudal power. Similarly, if there is no transparency in governance, and if there are no instruments of accountability at the citizens' disposal, flawed democracy becomes ineffective in checking the abuse of authority, and perpetuates the hold of traditional power brokers on state and society. In effect, the flawed democratic process tended to accentuate social rigidities, instead of modernizing society.
As a result, the modern liberal democratic state, which ought to be a significant part of the solution to society's maladies, has itself become part of the problem. Whereas, the modern state has a great role in shaping society just as the civil society has a seminal role in democratizing the state. In order to achieve both these goals we need active citizenship and social movements for reform. Therefore the answer to the enveloping governance crisis has to lie with civil society itself.
People's Sovereignty and Collective Assertion
In any democracy it is the universally accepted norm that the people are ultimate sovereigns and the government is elected and officials are appointed as public servants to provide governance on behalf of people, who are their true masters. Every functionary of government, whether elected or appointed, from the president of the republic to the lowest paid employee in the neighbourhood is the servant of the people, paid from the state exchequer and accountable to the public in return. The constitution itself is a creature of the collective will of the people. When the state becomes dysfunctional with grievous consequences, the people always reserve the right to set things right.
Still, isolated efforts, no matter how well meaning and necessary, are bound to be frustrated when unaccompanied by the other necessary reforms. Collective and informed assertion on a day-to day basis in matters relating to all public services at the local and community level is the most elementary duty of the citizens. Even mandatory services like getting a residential certificate, enrolling the name of a citizen as a voter, obtaining a driving license or getting a land sale registered involve delay, corruption, inefficiency, hostility, apathy, harassment, humiliation and indignity to most citizens on daily basis. The frequent changes of governments have made no real difference over the years.
One lesson learned by all of us is that what we need is not merely a change of players but also the change of the rules of the game. However at the local level, collective and informed assertion by citizens will significantly improve the quality of public services even within the existing rules of the game. Individuals are too weak and isolated to fight effectively and can be victimised and harrased by arbitrary rogue functionaries of state. Assertion without precise knowledge of the way public services are supposed to be delivered will create a lot of noise with little positive outcome. Mendicancy and parasitism will only convert the citizens into subjects seeking alms from the almighty state, and therefore assertion of public will in a peaceful and democratic way is necessary.
In the absence of effective instruments to promote transparency and accountability, mere informed public assertion at the local level is not enough. Freedom of information on all matters of governance, citizen's charters codifying standards of performance in public services and establishing systems of accountability, empowerment of local governments in order to establish a clear, intelligible, well-defined relationship between the vote and welfare of the citizens, and between tax money and service rendered to the public, legal empowerment of citizens as stake holders in select public services, and measures for achieving speedy justice at the local level are all such instruments which can be put in place within the existing constitutional framework at the State and local level.
While governments have been paying lip sympathy to these measures occasionally, there has been no serious effort to build enduring institutions to serve the public cause and make governance accountable. Citizens' initiatives and people's movements ought to focus on all these specific, practical, measurable, broadly acceptable institutional mechanisms and force the elected governments to respond to people's urges at local and State level. Unless such well-defined and universally acceptable measures are identified and public opinion is mobilised through the people's movement, no government is likely to initiate tangible and enduring action to empower citizens and to make itself accountable to the public.
However, all these instruments are still inadequate without the opportunity to effectively participate in the political process. Political parties, which now function as closed oligarchies and personal fiefdoms, should be reformed comprehensively. Free, open and non-arbitrary membership, regular, free and fair elections within the party, complete transparency and accountability with strict disclosure norms on all matters relating to funding and utilization with swift penalties for violation, and democratic choice of party candidates for elective public office through secret ballot are all the necessary preconditions for citizens' effective political participation. Democratization of political parties should be accompanied by comprehensive electoral reforms to make elections genuinely free and fair, and to enable public opinion to be translated into legislative presence.
Simple procedural reforms will ensure that electoral rolls are accurate and up-to-date. For instance if citizen- friendly institutions like post offices become nodal agencies for making available electoral rolls and for filing applications for inclusion or deletion of names, there will be significant improvement in electoral process. Given the serious flaws in electoral rolls and absence of voter identity cards, large scale personation, rigging and booth capturing have become the norm in many pockets of India, effectively alienating decent citizens from the political process. Simultaneously efforts to curb persons with criminal record from contesting are vital to ensure healthy interface between politics and civil society. Reforms to ensure accountable and transparent use of money in elections are equally critical to improve the health of our polity, and uphold people's sovereignty.
Citizen activism is necessary to closely monitor the election process and exercise vigil over the functioning of political parties and conduct of elections. This is necessary for two reasons. Firstly the distortions and perversions in political parties and electoral process have become the biggest stumbling block to governance reform in India. Secondly during the time of election people's minds are sharply focused on issues related to governance and it will be relatively easy to spread public awareness about the failure of the existing governance structure and the specific tangible reforms needed to improve state functioning. For instance electoral rolls are notoriously flawed all over the country and the names of eligible voters are often missing, while names of those who are ineligible or not residing in the locality or dead or fictitious persons find place in voters' lists. Voter identity cards are not made available to the citizens despite an expenditure of Rs.1000 crores incurred already, and such identity cards are not made mandatory to exercise franchise. As a result massive rigging by impersonation, booth capturing, and various other malpractices have become the norm in our elections, making a mockery of our democracy.
From concern to concerted action
Skeptics may wonder whether a national effort for governance reforms is possible. Millions of Indians, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and from Gauhati to Ganganagar, are yearning for fundamental reforms heralding better governance. This concern is dissipated in the absence of attempts to capture and channelize it into a creative national endeavor. If an infrastructure of institutions, people's initiatives and ideas is in place to seize the moment, then a relatively peaceful and painless transformation for better governance is possible, as evidenced in Germany. If, however no concerted effort is made in time to constructively channelize people's anger and yearning for reform, then the results could be devastating, with anarchy and misery to the bulk of the people, as the plight of the erstwhile Soviet Union amply testifies.
But there is nothing intractable or immutable about our governance crisis. There are enough strengths in society to see us through difficult times. The institution of family, the sprit of tolerance and accommodation most Indians instinctively embrace, the sense of Dharma that informs the myriad actions of countless people, and the strong influence of society on individual behaviour are all positive forces which can be creatively applied to mobilize civil society.
In many ways, Indians are ready for the rejuvenation of our Republic and transformation of our governance structure. We must have the courage and wisdom to take democracy to its logical conclusion, and make the citizen the centre of our universe.