Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Democratic Upsurge in India

Rajan Agarwal

“A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
One cannot probably think of a better time to narrate the democratic upsurge in India with a firsthand experience of the same. The general elections for the 16th Lok Sabha are ongoing giving us a live demonstration of the democratic upsurge in India.
India adopted the principle of universal adult franchise when the present Constitution was implemented on 26 January, 1950, according to which if one is an Indian citizen of 18 years or above, he or she can vote. Unlike Western democracies, which granted the right to vote first to propertied men, later educated men, then all men and only after much debate and agitation to women, independent India granted all adult men and women regardless of their religion, caste, language, wealth or education the right to vote in one fell swoop. Thus started the sunrise of democracy in India which had till then been eclipsed by the imperialistic Britain.
Democracy is not new to India; it existed even during the ancient period. Ancient India is claimed to be the repository of the highest form of democracy. We find the people participating in urban councils with the power to instruct and direct the king according to their will. The multitude of ethnicities and people provided for the autonomy and self-determination of the villages, city-states, republics and constitutional kingdoms through the observance of Dharma. The villages ruled by their elected representatives and were, therefore, autonomous and self-governing administrative units having the power to manage their educational, economic social, administrative and other requirements. Their own assemblies and committees also governed townships. There were Mahajanapadas and Janapadas which represented a form of democracy.
Wikipedia defines Democracy as a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally—either directly or indirectly through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, religious, cultural, ethnic and racial equality, justice, liberty and fraternity. But democracy is not merely limited to electing one’s representative or voting but I essence it comprises of all the actives which ultimately lead to an elected representative. Democracy is about the freedom of speech through which ne puts forward one’s ideas, it is about the freedom to pen down one’s thoughts and debate about it, to form an opinion and sit back and analyze your vote for the next 5 years to start the process all over again.
Despite not having compulsory voting, the number of people voting keeps increasing the percentage remaining around 60%. Unlike the global trend which points to a steady decline in voting numbers, Indians vote in large numbers because they believe democracy brings about a change in their lives, a change for the better. Analysts have pointed out that if those at the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy take the trouble to vote, defying threats and violence, it is because democracy is bringing change in their lives, however small these might be.
The first general election were held in 1951 and Indian National Congress emerged as the clear winners and the process continued till the 70’s when the first democratic upsurge occurred with the declaration of emergency and collapse of Congress rule. Politically, this led to a non-Congress coalition ruling India for the first time since independence. Socially, it led to the transfer of political power from the upper caste Hindus who had dominated the Congress since its inception to the intermediate peasant castes, today called the OBCs or the Other Backward Castes.
Democracy is not about a single dominant community enjoying all the privileges but about the uprising of the people in the lowest rung of the social ladder. The second democratic upsurge, which began in the late 80s, brought the Dalits into the political mainstream as an independent force. By 2007, the Dalit controlled BSP ruled India’s largest state. However, the economic and social transformation of the second democratic upsurge is far from complete, with the Dalits continuing to face marginalization and violence, mainly from the OBCs.
The democracy keeps on growing with the addition of every new voter to the electoral rolls, with the addition of cleaner candidates in the parliament and with the election moving away from caste based to issue based one. One such democratic upsurge could be the slow entry of the middle class and neo middle class into politics. These are the very people who made a conscious effort and stayed away from politics although criticizing and narrating its pitfalls every minute. But in the fag end of 2010 it appeared that the neo-middle class was ready to enter politics with its own voice. During the India Against Corruption agitation, it was noted that middle class India was now a mass and wanted to play a bigger role in the country’s politics through its media clout. The key intervention of the AAP has been to combine this new middle class clout with the numbers and anger of Delhi’s working class to produce a transparent, non-sectarian urban political coalition. Could this be the third democratic upsurge? Well people on both sides my argue in favor or against the motion but the rise of the neo-middle class is a new chapter in the book of democracy.
One cannot forget the most important institution which is responsible for conducting the elections, The Election Commision-The Election Commission (EC), which conducts the polls, goes the extra mile to ensure that voters can exercise their franchise. In some parts of the country, which are inaccessible by roads, officials trek for three to four days or ride on the backs of elephants to set up polling booths. In the western state of Gujarat, the EC has set up a polling booth for one voter - a priest in a temple in the heart of the Gir forest, which is home to the Asiatic lion. He will vote in the third phase of the election. Officials brave wild animals, scorching heat, long treks, militants and impatient voters to ensure that people can exercise their fundamental right to vote.
While India gears up for the month long 16th Lok sabha elections, democracy is getting redefined. Every election is termed as a historical one because it brings out new dimensions of the word democracy. Following are some of the key areas:
Social Media:  The educated urban youth, in the near past  had completely alienated themselves from mainstream political activism. For a long time, associating with politics or political activism was a taboo and was considered a major negative in the path of a bright young Indian's professional career growth. But things are changing fast. The signs were all there for the last two-three years when the rapid popularity of the social media was making things undergo fast metamorphosis. Twitter and Facebook became great tools for the reluctant young Indian to actively engage at least in discussions on political, economic, military as well as social issues. What started as discussions eventually became powerful groups for not just mere discussions but criticism and dissemination of opinion on several issues..
 How much the social media and active engagement of educated youth of India would make a real difference in the election outcomes, only time can say that. But no one can deny the fact that social media is here to stay and it is increasingly becoming an indispensable tool for political democracy. With India's internet penetration moving steadily upward, the reach would eventually extend to not just the educated mass of cities but also perhaps one day become a tool to connect with every Indian, be it urban or rural, be it the skilled or unskilled workforce, be it the elite or the rustic. Social Media is here to stay and is now an extended army of democracy of India from which nothing can be hidden and which is now a major pressure group to reckon with, which no one can ignore. Social media has perhaps made India's democracy more inclusive.
Citizen’s participation: The mechanisms for citizens’ participation in governance have been conceptualized in the form of citizens seeking information, citizens giving suggestions, citizens demanding better services, citizens holding service providers and other government agencies accountable and citizens actively participating in administration and decision making processes. Access to information is a fundamental requirement for ensuring citizens’ participation in governance. In this context, the Right to Information Act 2005 has laid down adequate ground-work for the same. Its functionality and utility depends on greater awareness on part of the citizens. The process of including people in decision making processes necessarily needs to start small and with direct interaction with the citizens, asking for their suggestion through surveys, referenda, public hearings, suggestion boxes etc.
Grievance redressal : An effective public grievance redressal system includes identification and analysis of grievance prone areas, setting up of a consumer protection system in the form of lok adalats and consumer forums for rapidly dealing with consumer complaints, and setting up of a well-functioning consumer feedback system. These mechanisms must necessarily be inclusive of marginalised sections of the society- women, physically challenged, lower castes, remotely located and such like. The Citizen's Charter and Grievance Redressal Bill 2011 also known as The Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011 is a manifestation of it.
Civil Society:  India is the largest democracy in the world. But without its lively NGO scene, many ills in society would continue unchallenged. Civil society derives its strength from the Gandhian tradition of volunteerism, but today, it expresses itself in many different forms of activism. Recently, Anna Hazare – a modern Gandhian and his team struggled hard to pressurize the union government to pass a strong Jan Lokpal Bill so that bureaucracy, courts and ministry including Prime Minister could be brought within the purview of such a strong law to check corruption in India. it was successful to large extent when the The Lokpal Act,2013 was made.
Public Delivery System: “Democracy eventually gives everyone a promise and a hope to be included in citizen entitlements. Within the international community, democracy and governance are widely advocated as intrinsically desirable and important goals. The challenge for democracies is, therefore, not simply to strengthen downward electoral accountability so that politicians have an incentive to pay attention to citizen needs.  The need for democracy and development and the challenge of developing societies like India is to make democratic governance work in terms of good public delivery systems which truly impact the lives of citizens.” -Najeeb Jung, current Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. Effective public service delivery implies involvement of citizens at all stages of a programme, that is, planning, implementation and monitoring.
Placing citizens at the centre of administrative and decision making processes of the government is the hallmark of a living and thriving democracy. The great churning process has begun once more and after several round we have made a remarkable progress but lot is left to be done. There might be a democratic upsurge in India but several reforms still await to see the light of the day. The Supreme Court struck down Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which protects convicted MPs and MLAs from disqualification if they appeal before a higher court within three months, on the ground of pendency of appeal. This was indeed a landmark judgement but the final call lies with the voters who exercise their right to flush out the criminal background candidates, they have even been bestowed the NOTA option i.e. to reject all the candidates incase none appears a clean candidate. The media has never been so lively before bringing out the intricacies of candidates, parties, manifestos and all involved in the election. But ultimately it’s the voter whose level of literacy and understanding of the candidate he votes for which will decide the future of Indian democracy and not the ‘tainted neta’ or the ‘mafia’ lord or the ‘empty dream weaver’. 

Rajan Agarwal is a civil service aspirant. This essay is a replica of the  entry for the essay competition at securing 4th position.

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