Choosing between reform and referendum

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.

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:56 pm IST

Published - January 11, 2012 01:44 am IST

Baijayant ‘Jay' Panda

Baijayant ‘Jay' Panda

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.)

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