Switch to direct democracy

Whatever ultimately happens to the unprecedented agricultural protests that have stirred passions even abroad, it has revealed the flawed nature of the democratic principles we follow. More mature democracies, which unlike us do not wear the Democracy label on their sleeves, must scoff at a political system where laws are passed without consulting stakeholders and when stakeholders protest, they are nicknamed, of all things , “Anti-national”!

The flawed method by which the three farm laws were enacted and incorporated into law with not exceptional and mysterious haste amid the Covid-19 pandemic became evident during negotiations between the government and the protesting farmers. Union ministers admitted to agricultural leaders that it was a mistake not to have consulted them when drafting legislation and the government agreed to give in writing and even change some of the provisions – questions which were previously highlighted by the opposition but were dismissed as frivolous.

Democratic Powers

Indeed, if a broader debate had been conducted earlier, the situation today would not have happened; even if the opposition’s concerns had been accepted, much of the goad in the new laws would not have existed to upset farmers so much. Talking to farmers about ending the real mass protests and then insulting them and accusing them of being manipulated by the Maoists is sad to say the least.

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Technically India is the biggest democracy in the world – simply because we have more people living here than anywhere else (except Communist China). Some may think that it is not charitable to say it, but this is where our democratic references end. Our periodic elections can certainly make us proud; but once a party or a group of parties forms a government, there is hardly any democracy as far as the people are concerned until the next elections.

This is not a new flaw in the Indian system. It has been around since 1947 and, sadly, has only gotten worse over the past few decades. Did authorities in Bhopal ask residents if they were comfortable living near a Union Carbide factory that stored huge amounts of deadly gas? Do administrations care whether people are comfortable having nuclear power plants near their villages?

Does the government believe in holding a referendum before appropriating farmers’ land in the name of “development”? The people of the city will laugh at this example; but tell them that their residential neighborhoods will be taken care of for “development” and that they will take up arms in a much more vocal way.

Participative democracy

If the GST had been the subject of a credible national debate, all of the subsequent amendments would not have been necessary. Before changing the names of towns and streets, sometimes without thinking, are the inhabitants of the area / region asked if the change is necessary? Did governments, including those in the United States, consult with people before cutting English teaching? In some cases, years after committing the hara-kiri, some governments have made dramatic U-turns.

We can continue to give examples of the lack of participatory democracy. We have come to assume that leaders know best and no matter what they do for five long years.

The one and only time I remember that any kind of popular vote was organized by a political party was in December 2013, when the Aam Aadmi (AAP) party, which had dramatically won 28 seats in the 70 members of the Delhi Assembly, was asked to decide whether he will take the support of the Congress which he opposed in the election. AAP chief and later Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal held a Delhi-wide ‘yes’ or ‘no’ telephone referendum – and followed the majority decision to align with Congress. Kejriwal’s decision was dismissed as a drama, an attempt to disguise his political ambition. Whatever the truth, it was a rare case where a party would ask the people who voted for it what to do.

Feudal state of mind

Our dominant feudal mentality is largely responsible for this state of affairs. Those at the helm find it contemptuous to keep asking people what to do. Such a situation also exists in most Indian households – or more correctly existed widely until recently. When we were growing up, our parents decided what was good for us in higher education – science, business or humanities! In most Indian households, elders are still deciding who will marry whom, although this trend is also showing signs of breaking up.

Can we then blame the old politicians for assuming that they know everything and that no one knows national interests better than them? If such thinking had not been a reality, we would not have had tens of thousands of farmers squatting Delhi’s borders in this bitter cold demanding that farm laws be repealed. If it hadn’t been for ego issues, the government could have explained its point of view more broadly and then held a referendum on land reforms.

Since we often preach to the world, it is good to learn from those who do things better. Switzerland has what is called “direct democracy” which allows all citizens over the age of 18 to participate in decision-making. It is a bottom-up democracy – in direct contrast to countries like India. Constitutional amendments approved by Parliament are subject to a compulsory referendum or a national popular vote.

The farmers’ protests made it clear that it is high time to move from representative democracy to participatory democracy – for the good of the country.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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