In a lot of my conversations with friends, I find not only a great deal of recognition of India’s problems, but also the desire to solve them. From swaraj to hunger to social strife to infrastructure to agriculture, different conversations centre around different problems, depending on the passions of the person I’m talking to. But interestingly, a very large number of these conversations finally arrive at, and get stuck at, an important piece of the puzzle — the lack of political will to solve India’s problems, despite citizens voicing a strong need for solutions to their problems. I find a lot of them questioning whether democracy is really the right system for India.
What is democracy?
The idea behind democracy is something like this. Citizens have various needs and aspirations, the pursuit of which requires solving certain problems in their society/ economy. To solve these problems, they elect fellow-citizens with the ability and the willingness to represent them (legislature). These representatives, in turn, enact laws that are in sync with the aspirations and needs of the citizens, helping to solve the citizen’s problems. In short, democracy is a bridge between people’s needs & aspirations and the government’s policies. Democracy’s job is to ensure alignment of the latter to the former.
Good politics comes from listening
This is the main purpose of democracy — that policy-making is closely guided by the needs of citizens. Monarchies and dictatorships have no such bridge between citizens’ needs and govt policies. Any “good” decision made by a dictator is purely based on guesswork as to the citizen’s needs, and not due to representation of the citizen in the policy-making process. This representation makes it compulsory for the govt to listen to the citizen’s voice. In a democracy, the policy-maker’s main job is to listen to the citizen. Good or bad decisions are merely a consequence of listening to the citizen. This is what Swaraj means — self-rule of citizens comes from representation.
India needs Swaraj — a more “representative” democracy
India’s political system has, for decades now, stopped listening to citizens about their needs and aspirations. The grassroots engagement of citizens with their representatives is totally broken. Most citizens have no access to their local MLA/ MP, and do not get a chance to meet their representative even once during a 5-year term. Many are not even aware of who their representative is. The citizen’s problems, and more importantly the priority order of those problems, cannot be communicated to lawmakers. Poor decisions that are disconnected from citizens’ real needs are a natural outcome of such a process.
Things are changing
The good news: While India needs more representative democracy, certain parties are willing to step forward and provide it. It is important that citizens support such parties. Citizens must demand certain mandatory minimum levels of interaction with MLAs/ MPs (e.g. at least a one-hour interaction), at a certain minimum frequency (e.g. at least once a week/ month). Such rules not only ensure better communication and representation (which is the politician’s only job), but they also ensure accountability of politicians to citizens. Such grassroots engagement gives citizens a chance to demand adherence to election manifestos and other promises made. In certain parts of India, newer and younger parties are already highly successful with their attempts at representative democracy.
Ball in citizens’ court
Citizens judge politicians wrongly. Our ways of judging politicians and political parties involve judging a single personality/ image/ manner of talking, or certain marquee projects/ decisions undertaken by them, without regard to whether those decisions truly reflect the aspirations and needs of citizens.
We need to judge politicians by how well they do their only job, which is an adherence to representative democracy. It is for a reason that the act governing political parties in India is called the “Representation of People” Act. Citizens must show their seriousness about representative democracy by voting for parties that voluntarily come up with citizen-engagement rules by themselves, and show a clear commitment to listening to citizens.
If representative democracy/ Swaraj helps a party win elections, then it will catch on quickly among the other parties too. After all, no party wants to lose elections. And if the rules come from parties themselves in a market-determined manner, the change will be competitive and sustainable, unlike rules that are enforced by the Election Commission or some other external body.
So when we have conversations about solutions to India’s problems, let us not judge politicians merely by their words or their image or their stated stance on issues. A politician’s main job is to represent his people, which means engaging with them and listening to them. Let us judge them by their track record of doing that. A natural result of this will be policies that are in sync with the citizen’s needs and aspirations. Good governance and development will happen.