A vote on referendums

BREAK-UP: “Analyses showed how the Brexit referendum was more of a protest vote aimed atthe economic state of affairs than a well-considered mandate for a new Britain that is out of the EU.” An anti-Brexit protest at Trafalgar Square in London.  

The maturing of Indian democracy with the slow but sure strengthening of representative institutions, the separation of powers, and increased participation in elections is a triumph for the people. But there are questions about the depth of our democratic consciousness. How much say do Indian citizens have in influencing important legislations that have a strong bearing on their lives? Is it merely enough for citizens to elect and thrust responsibility upon parliamentary representatives to make choices for them? Can there be other devices to supplement the functioning of Indian democracy to make it more accountable, participatory and deliberative?

Two recent referendums

As we ponder these questions, referendums — instruments of direct democracy where citizens get to directly vote on specific and important issues rather than for representatives who will make a choice on their behalf on those issues — have been in the news recently. The Brexit referendum, on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, concluded on June 23 with 52 per cent (of 72.2 per cent of the electorate that turned out) voting to “Leave”. The October 2 referendum called by the Colombian government to ratify the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) resulted in a “No” vote favoured by 50.3 per cent of the less than 38 per cent of the electorate that turned out.

In both these referendums, held in diverse regions, the outcome came as a surprise. Anger at perceived loss of jobs due to immigration saw many Britons (especially in England and Wales) voting for a Brexit. Post-vote analyses showed how this referendum was more of a protest vote aimed at the economic state of affairs in post-financial crisis Britain than a well-considered mandate for a new Britain that is out of the EU. Even the most ardent proponents of Brexit distanced themselves from their own autarkic positions in the run-up to the referendum after the vote. The complications of a Brexit seemed to have never been thought through by the proponents and Britain’s political class is still roiled about the manner and method of the impending Brexit.

In the case of Colombia, a painstaking series of negotiations between President Juan Manuel Santos’s government and the FARC, with external brokerage from Cuba, came to naught after the referendum failed to ratify the deal. Participation was low, and the defeat margin for those in favour of the deal was narrow. But the outcome put a major spanner in the implementation of a peace deal which was to bring closure to a half a century-old civil war that resulted in lakhs of deaths.

The opposition to the deal was driven by detractors who derided it for political rather than functional reasons. Former President Alvaro Uribe now suggests that the referendum was for a renewed peace deal that emphasises greater accountability on FARC leaders for war crimes but this seems to be more of a feint to seek power during future negotiations.

Reasons for the results

The question that arises when we look at these referendums is this — are they too risky? Are political representatives in an indirect democracy more capable than voters themselves to deliberate on important public policy matters and make informed choices?

The first question can be easily answered. Referendums tend to add legitimacy to difficult legislative choices and it is more risky to take unpopular decisions without that stamp of legitimacy. As regards capability, legislators are voted less on the basis of their lawmaking competency and more on their promises and popularity in democracies today. In India for example, legislations are influenced more by party satraps than individual Members of Parliament.

Rather than questioning if instruments of direct democracy have a role at all in a representative system based on the British and Colombian examples, we need to do the following. First, we should not conflate the outcomes of referendums, even if the outcomes are unexpected, with the need for them. Each outcome has its rationale rooted in its specific political economy. In the case of Britain, the country stayed out of the Eurozone and therefore managed to use its currency control systems adroitly to escape the worst of the fallout of the global financial crisis. But stagnant economic growth and competition for blue-collar jobs between the lower middle classes and the immigrants had made EU membership a proxy issue for anger against immigration policies.

In Colombia, the FARC’s later-year strategy of using hostage taking and pumping profits from its allowances for drug production had seen to its intense notoriety among voters from non-interior parts of the country. A peace deal was more welcome to the harried electorate from the interior parts which had borne the brunt of internecine warfare. This reflected in the voting patterns. In any case, there should have been a minimum bar on participation to decide upon the ratification. With only 38 per cent of the electorate taking part, the referendum’s outcome should not have been binding in the first place.

Second, the need is for identifying when and how referendums are used in a representative democracy and not to question their efficacy. In India, there are very limited means of citizen participation in lawmaking, as this is a prerogative only of representatives. There are devices such as the Standing Committees in Parliament which invite members from civil society to weigh in their views on Bills that are up for discussion in the Houses. But largely, legislations are a matter that can only be influenced by public opinion through media coverage.

Relevance in the Indian context

If there are provisions which enable public voting on certain legislations — say, a mechanism that calls for referendums on select Bills and Acts based on a large quantum of public signatures seeking to vote on them — it could go a long way in not just sensitising the public towards important laws but also for a means of getting popular approval for them.

For example, today, the Aadhaar Act seeking to provide legal backing to the Aadhaar project was passed as a money bill, reducing an important legislation that could affect the welfare state, and which raises several issues related to privacy, to merely a legislation on government spending. Would it not be fruitful to have mass participation over deciding whether Aadhaar should be mandatory to avail of welfare entitlements or services? It even seems imperative considering that there are serious questions being raised about the implementation of the project in schemes such as PDS distribution.

There are dangers, of course. Referendums can lead to majoritarian and not just majority outcomes and therefore constitutional safeguards on the kinds of Bills and Acts that can be brought up for voting are a must. A lot of thought has to go into creating the mechanisms that allow for referendums.

In today’s milieu where legislatures are driven more by narrow political battles between the power-seeking executive and a cynical opposition, a demand for an instrument of direct democracy to be incorporated into legislative actions could seem impractical and utopian. But it is not an idea to be scoffed at as it has its merits. India, according to studies on referendums held across the world till 1993, is one of only five democracies to have never held them. It is worthwhile to consider this mechanism at least as a limited device to enhance our democracy into a substantive one.

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 6:25:28 PM |

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