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Updated: January 24, 2012 14:44 IST

Choosing between reform and referendum

Baijayant ‘Jay' Panda
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Baijayant ‘Jay' Panda
Baijayant ‘Jay' Panda

Even a few systemic tweaks will yield disproportionately good results in nudging our politics into a more centrist, problem-solving mode. Despite the seeming breakdown and chaos of the political process in recent times, incremental tweaks are simple, far reaching, and feasible.

Other than anyone stranded on a desert island for the past year, no one could have missed the sense of political malaise that seems to have gripped India. There is a widespread belief that the kind of democratic system in which we operate is failing us. In response, the suggested solutions seem to fall into three categories: that we need more democracy; or we need less democracy; or that we need to reboot the system.

Last week in these pages, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan asked “Has the time come for us to rethink and deepen our democracy by putting in place systems where laws and policies would be decided by decisive inputs of the people (through referendums and gaon sabhas, or village councils) rather than only by such ‘elected representatives'?” That falls squarely in the ‘more democracy' category, on which more later.

In the ‘less democracy' category is the business fraternity, which has long envied countries like China — post-Deng, of course! — where a business-friendly government is not hamstrung by democratic complications. Also, sections of an increasingly frustrated middle class now ascribe our current malaise to “too much democracy.” In the third category, MP and former Minister Shashi Tharoor has argued in favour of rebooting our democracy into a presidential system. This also has shades of advocating more democracy, since it would require the head of state to be directly elected by the public.

‘Less democracy' crowd

The ‘less democracy' crowd, whether or not it recognises the shortcomings of authoritarian systems — for instance, venality far outstripping anything India has experienced — is realistic enough to realise that India is stuck with democracy. What it often wishes for is a return to the era of single party governments, away from the squabbling coalitions that have become the norm, and hopefully with a charismatic leader like an Indira Gandhi or an Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Though there is nothing preventing such a scenario in theory, the end of the era of coalitions is unlikely soon.

Even less likely is the possibility that consensus can be built to reboot our democracy into a presidential system. Shashi Tharoor, despite the eloquence of his argument in its favour, concedes that the idea does not have traction today; in fact, it has been mooted several times during the past sixty-five years without picking up steam. It has also not proven infallible elsewhere, as can be seen from the current legislative gridlock in the U.S. In any case, the current atmosphere of hostility in and about politics makes it a far-fetched possibility that there can be consensus around a total constitutional overhaul.

That brings us back to Prashant Bhushan's point. By putting the words “elected representatives” in quotes, he is only voicing the cynicism that so many already feel about our politics. The farcical spectacle that Parliament has become, not to mention the State Assemblies, has left many in no doubt that something has got to change; but what?

Direct democracy or devolution?

Whether the solution lies in direct democracy (referendums) or devolution of powers to village councils deserves closer scrutiny. Countries that regularly practise some degree of direct democracy like Switzerland are small, homogenous, and renowned for their clockwork efficiency. Other countries that have had referendums, whether smaller ones like Sweden or larger ones like Brazil, have had them only rarely.

Yet others, like the U.S., only have them at the state level, not nationally, and that too not in most states.

Most modern proposals to incorporate referendums as a way of life usually propose a modified version, often called e-democracy, which depends on near-universal rates of literacy as well as access to online voting. Quite clearly, India is a long way away from considering that option seriously; but what about old-fashioned physical referendums? The key issue, of course, is logistics. Referendums are no different from elections — with all the concomitant bandobast, campaigning, and expenses — except that they are usually on a single issue. Considering all that it entails in India, it might be just as well to have elections instead.

Village councils are not a new concept in India. Panchayats have existed in ancient times and have been reintroduced in modern times. The latter are still struggling to find their feet, clamouring for devolution of more powers and bigger budgets. Nevertheless, even the proposals for granting them more powers only contemplate doing so for local, not national, issues.

Radical idea

The idea that village councils should contribute to State and national lawmaking is a radical one, but closely related to referendums. It enjoys the same potential strengths (more participatory democracy) and suffers from the same weaknesses (logistics). It simply cannot be conducted frequently; and if it is to be done occasionally, with the same paraphernalia as elections, the question needs to be asked how it would be any better than the elections we already have.

The answer to that question lies in access; that is, a referendum would be a vote on an idea, whereas elections are just as much about parties and personalities. Unless electoral reforms can be introduced, reducing entry barriers in politics and levelling the playing field in political parties, it will be hard to keep arguing that elections are the lone remedy to unsettled issues of national importance. No such electoral reforms are on the horizon, but it is conceivable that sustained activism could put them on the agenda.

With or without basic electoral reforms, there are nevertheless incremental systemic tweaks possible that would reinstate confidence in our politics. At the top of the list must be the cleansing of the criminally tainted from our polity. The debate of how to do so without compromising their right to be presumed innocent until convicted has raged for years. In a country where the judicial system is logjammed, a simple tweak would be to require any criminal cases against elected representatives to be fast-tracked and adjudicated within 6 months. This would be a “privilege” given to MPs and MLAs, and only for criminal cases; just facilitating a quick acquittal (or conviction) will go a long way towards resolving the issue.

‘More democracy' lot

Some of the “more democracy” lot, myself included, have pointed out that India suffers from many vestiges of the Raj-era political system, which have still not been fully expunged. While our Constitution itself is post-independence, many of the rules and conventions of our Parliament and Assemblies date from decades earlier, when the Raj started introducing limited franchise for natives but retained overweening powers for itself. The result is a continuation of pre-independence style confrontationist politics, with the Opposition's options being either total capitulation or total obstruction, without a viable middle ground.

Even a few systemic tweaks would yield disproportionately good results in nudging our politics into a more centrist, problem-solving mode. For instance, we must aim to provide stable tenures to governments; that can be achieved by incorporating the German format of a “constructive vote of no confidence,” which requires choosing an alternative leader instead of just unseating the incumbent. With more stability must come more accountability; that can happen by replacing the government's veto on which parliamentary debates can be voted on, with a rule that a third of all MPs (or MLAs) can demand a voting debate.

Healthy balance of power

One reason political discourse has lost its give and take culture is the increased concentration of power in party leaderships, at the cost of elected representatives, in recent years. Restoring a healthy balance of power must be a priority, and can be achieved by limiting party whips to only no-confidence motions and money bills. Another major gain can be achieved by a minor tweak, that is by removing the requirement of seeking the President's prior approval before private bills — authored by MPs and MLAs rather than governments — can be introduced, as well as changing the convention that these are debated but not passed. Doing away with such paternalistic practices will greatly improve the engagement that elected representatives have with enacting legislation.

Despite the seeming breakdown and chaos of the political process in recent times, these incremental tweaks are simple, far reaching and, most important, feasible. But they will require building up public support. Attempted one or two at a time, these would not face the same hurdles that the Lokpal Bill has faced, but would benefit from similar activism. Now that civil society is experienced at that, perhaps it is time to secure these low hanging fruits.

(The author is an MP of the Biju Janata Dal in the Lok Sabha.)


The great leap backwardJanuary 23, 2012

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First of all I am very much delighted that our MPs are so much thinking. But depriving real power to middle class of dis country is creating unrest. Like a guy named Rahul from Hindu College or IIT and IIMA is less qualified in dis country to be a general secretary of Indian National Congress but a guy who is son of some influential family like Rahul Gandhi is preaching Rahuls of dis country to follow him. Can Manmohan Singh reply to d question that what message India should get when he says I am in favor of giving Rahul Gandhi a bigger role in national Politics. He means no matter what this country middle class youth will achieve,politics and so called power will be enjoyed by Nehru's turned Gandhi's now,Schindhias,Pilots,Dikshits of dis country but not a commoner. My dear MP give a call to your fraternity to have heart to distribute power on basis of quality but not on basis of your lineage. Politics is not some Kirana Shop you guys are running. Treat Sonia's Son equal to us.

from:  Ashutosh Anand
Posted on: Jan 23, 2012 at 08:31 IST

Thanx mr.jay for your valuble article towards a strong
democracy.Actually an young leader like u should put a strong pressure
on put clean and right rules in our system so that the common
people will be more helpfull.Criminisation is a most factor which
things purely dimolish our democatic system and these criminals are
been raising by some corrupted leaders.Anna is right:-saying there
must be an option "NO CHOICE"in the electronic voting machine.Lastly I
can say young leaders and young bureaucrats if unitedly fought against
corruption then common people will surely get a complete
democracy.Waiting to read another article sir.

from:  Lalatendu Mishra
Posted on: Jan 14, 2012 at 18:03 IST

I think first step is proportional democracy, in which most votes would count(atleast 90% of the votes polled will count). This will not onyl send more people but also instil a confidence in voter that his votes counts for all the 5 years unlike today where even if he is among 70% of the voters who voted against the candidate, he still has to suffer for remaining 5 years.

from:  Hardeep Parmar
Posted on: Jan 12, 2012 at 21:22 IST

The genuine outline of the fact you are experiencing during your membership in parliament.Whatever you are saying is not feasible on so many accounts.We Indians are used to "misuse the too-much Democracy taking camoufladge in the enshrine of our constitution".Our prevailing system of Ruling the nation is so adulterated,unhealthy & dishonest, it cannot be addressed in any easier way.People of our nation love to be indiscipline,lazy,believe in easy gains,prefer to take refuge under the loop-holes of law in place for selfish design and always democracy as an weapon to fight injustice.No leader in India ever emerged from the mass.We are always made to accept someone as our leader despite his shortcomings and our reservations.Our present system of democracy is well-equipped to address our issues and problems provided our leader should be of that stature and standing.As Late Biju Patnaik once opined that India needs Army rule or Presidential form of govt

from:  Satyendra Jena
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 22:00 IST

Mr. Jay Panda is very right when he laments the kind of democratic system that we operate is failing us, but the root cause analysis done by him on the pitfalls of this system failure is far from convincing. One of the main reasons for the system failure, from a layman’s point of view, is due to criminalization of the political system across party lines with induction of dubious persons who pays scant respect to the rule books and whichever type of governance is employed; this malady will not end. Added to this are numerous caste factors, regionalism, and fragile communal equations and the petty politics which our elected leaders often indulge in say river water disputes, sons of the soil politics etc ,etc,, to name a few and the only thing that matters is how to harness vote bank and win the next election . The problem solving mode as suggested will remain as wishful thinking so long as politician’s interest and common man’s interests differ.

from:  R K Chand
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 21:36 IST

Ideas mooted are worth exploring. Explore all the options available to us from all sources - our ancient scriptures, other countries,etc. However, India being country of diversity in region, religion, caste and ethnicity, we need to consider all these. Few suggestions:
i) The Federal structure and subjects under the States needs to be revisited. A good law enacted for the country should be applied and must be implemented unifromally across all states - ie Laws on Corruption, Police Reforms, Education, Electoral reforms, etc
ii) States should put more focus on Health, Rural Development and Poverty alleviation
iii) Uniform education system in all states iv) Electoral-Judicial-Police Reforms must be expedited v) Law on curbing corruption should be uniform across all states and all government employees must be brought under the uniform law
vi)Voting in parliament on issues of national importance should be done according to the personal view of the MP and not on the basis of party whip

from:  Mohammed Nasir
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 20:21 IST

These are some of the good ideas which address the problems faced by parliament in honouring its responsibilities. There should not be any doubt to make parliamentarians free from their party leaders while also discouraging defections. Members are lawmakers, so the rule to remove presidential prior approval fro private bills is logical as also the changing conventions from just debating to actually passing the bill. Fast tracking of criminal cases against elected representatives should be done. "Constructive vote of no- confidence" is required to make governments stable in contemporary coalition politics. But i feel the replacing governments veto on which debates can be voted on has the potential to make executive helpless. In the current scenario, if such rule existed, every debate may be put to vote!

from:  Deepak
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 20:11 IST

In my view,the leaders are much highly paid..they took much interest to gather money rather than to think and serve the we want a leader who don't want money but he will have a good command over the society ...again my suggestion to make really powerful to the PANCHAYATS..that should be the real Power hub..then only people can get the real benefits of democracy..

from:  Binod
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 16:45 IST

Not everything in governance is dealt in law. Most of our laws are verbatim copies of the erstwhile British rule book. There has never been so much of a dilemma on this. The problem is working policy. Policy evolution has to do with the parties and their manifestos. Since manifestos are the policy proposals on the basis of which the governments are elected, putting the manifesto to test again in an assembly or the parliament seems in-congruent. However if a government needs to implement a policy outside the announced manifesto it may be ratified by the parliament. This focus also will elevate policy debate within a party and strengthen internal democracy. Even a coalition will have quite a few common policy agendas which can be resolved within the cabinet instead of going to the parliament.

from:  S.Sistla
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 16:26 IST

I support the incremental systemic changes, as suggested by the author here. There is n doubt that we have a robust democracy that promotes pluralism and development. For the system to work, we citizens should realize the potential of our minor actions of honesty and integrity in our public life. No system can work without the citizens' change in mindset.

from:  Siba Prasad Samantaray
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 16:02 IST

Some Suggestions are given below. 1.Create separate/more constituencies for Tech society,NGO,professionals in Vidhan Parishad and more nominated members in Rajya Sabha to give political representations to those who feel alienated from mainstream Indian politics to air their views. 2.Strengthen inner party democracy,party should command. 3.Strengthening existing constitutional institutions

from:  Rajendra Narayan Dwivedy
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 14:47 IST

Excellent analysis,Ur suggestions are mostly about leveraging instruments available to Parliament,welcome,but too simlpistic in larger context.Politics is the reflection of society,our constitution has rightly addressed the issues,things are evolving for better in a pluralistic,multicultural,large country like ours.Voters r maturing.Recent political cynicism of a new born society(tech society out of globalisation)finds themselves out of system.Prasant Bhusan is misleading them.
We need more natural leaders having thorough understanding of society to have better say.Leadership is the critical issue. There are lows and highs,nothing to be cynical.

from:  Rajendra Dwivedy
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 13:15 IST

Good thinking but the auther somehow forget to adress the fundamental issue like a strong and educated civil soceity. I am not talking of Anna Hazare led civil soceity. We indians are very vulnereble to the cause of our village, city, state, religion, cast and creed instead of India as whole. So we need to educate our population but 61 years have been passed since our constitution came into force, not law enacted making secondary education mandatory for all. Unless you educate your people, you can't expect any good from any change in the administrative process.

from:  Biranchi Mishra
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 11:31 IST

On the face of it the piece looks to be great. The ideas are again great to bring reformations in the system through some tweaks which are not that simple as they sound. But, still, I have serious doubts if the desired reformations can bring significant improvement in the quality of democarcy in India. In order to improve the quality, the system needs to first develop a sense of accountability in the voter itself. While voting, the voter must feel that S/he is doing the best in making the system effective and to ensure a near true democracy for the coming generations. This, in my view, would be the key to a better democracy in India which would largely discomfort the political parties and the selfish elites who take the role of electoral middlemen during every election in the country. The systemic reformations come next to it and will become obvious once the voter becomes accountable to each of his/ her votes.

from:  Basudev Mahapatra
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 11:31 IST

Mr Panda should try applying some of the suggestion to his state of Odisha where his party has run a police state for the last 10 years - rigging gram sabhas and brutally evicting the poor and tribal communities for POSCO, Tatas and other multinationals in a no holds barred rape of the resource rich state. Such academic posturing and theorising once again speaks to the elite and the TV studio crowd - appearing all sweet reason while ground realities inflicted by the same politicians are very different and expose their true understanding of democracy. Incidentally despite being the darling of the english media, Odisha under Mr Naveen Patnaik continues to be at the bottom of most HDI parameters like infant mortality, malnutrition, education etc. Go ahead, Sir, tweak away...

from:  Vichitra PK
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 11:30 IST

It is no more of OPTIONS but must be of ACTIONS. No more theories but most of practice that is important. What a shame after 64 years of independence we are yet undecided by choice. The SYSTEM HAS FAILED MORE THAN HALF OF THE NATION. Question is for whom has the system worked? It has served primarily the Business Community who have made use of public money to expand and enjoy and hardly gave back any thing to the people whose money they have used through banking system that has gone totally wrong in focusing on peoples development and helped personal riches to grow. There is a businessman who wants to give himself Rs. 75 crores annually. What has the Banks do to stop that man to use bank money for an unbelievable comfort thought only of heaven?Then the Political class. They only enriched themselves in the garb of service to people who they never served. Will the Political class spend what they do if they were to spend from their own pockets or hard earned earnings? surely not.

from:  Dr. Swaraj Mukherjee
Posted on: Jan 11, 2012 at 10:57 IST
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