India Against Corruption should realise the ‘aam aadmi’ needs not only decentralised power but also a lofty vision

There are two underlying themes of India Against Corruption’s new party: the induction of good people and “people’s power” through consummate decentralisation. The vision document sets out a quest for “swaraj,” people’s right to self-determination. This ideal of self-determination has been conflated with direct democracy. Thus the vision document indicates that “as far as possible,” decisions will be taken through gram/ward sabhas, referendums, and local primaries to decide the party’s candidate nominations.

No person who professes a commitment to democracy will argue against political decentralisation. However to assume that decentralisation is synonymous with democracy is erroneous. Putting everything — local administrative decisions, legislations/policy, electoral candidates — to a vote can be majoritarian and hence counter-democratic. There are also legitimate questions of capacity and practicality. These three main ideas as put forward by IAC require further thought:

People, not party high command, nominating candidates: IAC has suggested having local open primaries to nominate candidates with both party workers and local people eligible to vote. This is an excellent idea. However more thought is required. First, India does not have a system like the United States where primaries are conducted by the public administration. Therefore voters are not registered for a particular party. It will be thus difficult to control “raiding” where workers of a political party deliberately vote for a weak candidate of another party. Second, running a credible internal election machinery will require large-scale resources and expertise, and it is unclear if a fledgling party can do so. A closed primary (only registered party workers may vote) may also pose problems of manipulation by local leaders, given that party organisation in large parts of the country is rudimentary/non-existent. Perhaps a better idea at this stage would be to define principles through public consultations and give party tickets in a transparent manner based on these principles.

Referendums: The vision document states that “people must be consulted directly on key national decisions.” The government must elicit public views on key issues in a democracy; however what entails meaningful and practical consultation is unclear. Complex policy initiatives do not lend themselves to the sort of binary response a referendum will necessarily entail. Team Anna conducted a referendum in Union Minister Kapil Sibal’s constituency for the Lokpal Bill but the questions consisted of issues where there was disagreement between the government and IAC. The possible options for selection were only two: government and Anna. If a referendum was to be done on the Lokpal Bill, how many questions would one need? A meaningful question would not be whether the Lokpal should be independent of the government or not — but how would this independence be ensured. This question alone would require going into the minutiae of the appointment committee, selection process, financial/administrative autonomy, etc. And there will be tens of such questions. Furthermore referendums are susceptible to majoritarianism, such as the recent ban on minarets in Switzerland and Proposition 8 in California (2008), which amended the definition of “marriage” to exclude same sex couples. Having the public decide on personal economic policy is also not necessarily a good thing since voters may not be driven by the state’s fiscal health. Many people trace the Californian budget crisis to the 1978 referendum which severely decreased property taxes. Finally there are concerns that referendums may be manipulated by organised and well-resourced special interests.

Local self-governance: The rhetoric of an “aam sabha” presumes a homogenous society with no internal conflict. However social hierarchy, imposed by caste in villages and class in urban areas, will impede (meaningful) participation. The consent of the gram sabha is invoked in issues such as displacement, where there is likely to be general consensus — however villages themselves become the locus of marginalisation for access to limited public goods. In urban areas, there is often a conflict of interest between immigrants/unorganised sector and the middle-class. In addition the often uncertain legal status of the migrant class can stifle participation. Therefore, mere devolution of powers and resources by itself may not lead to participation or egalitarian outcomes — and work is needed on the nature of supportive structures and social conditions needed for functional self-governance.

The purpose of a political party is to articulate a distinct vision for the future of the country, and mobilise the electorate around that vision. For a vision to be credible, one must also define a plausible road map for its attainment. However IAC’s current pronouncements are a mish-mash of non-cohesive ideas and a preoccupation with procedural points. Decentralisation as defined in their vision document is based on a worldview of adversarial binary division between the state and people, disregarding cross alliances and intra-group conflicts. This doesn’t necessarily increase democracy and appears to be motivated by a desire to curb the state. In any case, decentralisation must be contextualised within an ideology if it’s not to remain an operational goal. IAC has shown courage in entering electoral politics, in a landscape riven by primordial divisions, hijacked by money and muscle. Their entry has been disruptive in a system marked by complicit silence, and thus there is a great deal of energy and anticipation around their activities. However to go beyond capturing an anti-incumbent sentiment to create a true political alternative will require real vision.

(Ruchi Gupta is affiliated with the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Email: gupta.ruchi@gmail.com)

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