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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 50, New Delhi, November 27, 2021

Electoral Democracy: Reinvent It | A. Basheer

Saturday 27 November 2021


by Dr A. Basheer *

“Government by the people”, an inspiring and revolutionary idea defines democracy. Free and fair regular election that counts citizen’s vote equally is its cornerstone. Voting is the means of political participation and change. Universal adult franchise guarantees equal participation for all in the election – political equality. Competing political parties (Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties- E.E. Schatt Schneider -in Party government, 1942) avail voters with choices. Electoral/representative democracy aims to nurture the spirit and substance of democracy and to keep the representatives under public tabs and restrain them from exercising arbitrary power.

Elections also avail people with periodic opportunity to change those who hold governmental power and elect new persons for the next term. Most people, although not political experts, make sensible electoral decisions. People disenchanted with politics and politicians in power, preferring to have new leadership in government, in fact, strive to achieve that most important goal of democracy. Representatives strive to address local problem solving. And the party in the opposition has the role to keep the ruling party accountable.

Voting exercise is, but, not just the sign of democracy. It will not always change the quality, scope and kind of government, but may even lead to racist, communal, discriminatory policies, unfair economic advantages for the privileged ones and result in injustice to the unempowered. And the government may hanker after unviable socio-economic programmes. When electoral system fails to ensure fair and full representation of each group of people, due to political conflicts focussed on identity and religious /caste, ethnic conflicts, some groups may feel alienation. Overwhelmed by community, religious and caste prejudices such society devoid of mutuality in publicness will face associational deficit, nurture space for manipulation and corrupt community’s capacity to address its own problems. Therefore, democracy requires as its central issue very high levels of cooperation among people.

Changing Voting Behaviour

Electoral behaviour influences the shape of democratic government. In a heterogenous environment as that of India, individual voting behaviour and party choices are largely influenced by an array of factors – one’s social environment and routine interactions, wealth status, political socialisation and peer effects from the level of one’s family and friends, adjustment with diversity of political views, besides gender and religion. These differences influence the range of interactions among the people tending to dent democratic process. Voters influenced by narrow self interest make people suffer.

An individual’s party identification need not be a lifelong emotional attachment. His changing interests, contacts and ingenuity may necessitate to change his thinking and preferences and support to the party. Similarly, people who were previously participant will abstain from voting on a later occasion because of their lack of confidence on its expected outcome. Some people deliberately vote to influence the outcome of the election, probably to get the person of their choice elected. They will not mimic always what the leadership of the party to which they previously voted instructs them to do later. It is a fact that adult people attach varying loyalties to the leaders and change their voting preferences accordingly. There is a connection between individual’s changing socialisation and voting tendency. In fact, individuals’ attachment and loyalty to party and its leaders change according to their changing perceptions

Polarization of Electoral Politics and Political Instability

Elections sometimes fail to bring about a decisive majority when multiple parties polarising electoral politics fragment the legislatures with splintered groups that render the task of maintaining durable government tedious. This also results in the exclusion or under representation of important minorities in the legislatures. Such developments provoke parties to manufacture a majority by any means trading one problem for another. Lumpen political forces with suspicious commitment to democracy are often the beneficiaries of such kind of politics.

Democratic politics entails everyone to be equally part of it. Equal voting right, simply, does not always manifest in political equality, nor promote common good. But groups of people pursuing intensely partisan interests through politics is a big problem that elected governments face today. The advantaged sections, who ensure easy access to power and use it to generate policies that are likely to be partisan habitually benefit more from political exercises. ‘The nature of politics is that it does not equitably reflect interests.’ Similarly, public policies do not always equitably solve societal problems. Partisan political contests, discords and parochial desires ensue and aggravate group bitterness. Also, multiple parties contesting against each other resulting in victory of candidates of one party with less than one-third of votes polled and that party forming government makes democracy ‘thin’. Failure to rectify such developments debilitate democracy.

The Myth of People’s Rule

Regular elections and basic political freedoms and rights alone do not always help to manifest the ideal of democracy. More than electing the representatives to rule, democracy must facilitate the people make policies and help them lead their lives. People should control the decisions which affect their lives as members of society. Democracy and common good should be the result of collective decisions and choices of equal citizens rather than that of the powerful elites. But, in fact, the significance and power of elections to bring about people directed/associated governance and development has been on the wane. “ many settings, the reality of elections is often miserable, corrupted by money, tedium, policy fudge, lies and bullshit”. (David Van Ray Brouck). Duverger argued “periodic elections create ambition, choice and benefits”.

Election, in fact, only replaces one ruling class with another (‘rule by the few’) (Robert Mitchels, The Iron Law of Oligarchy,) mostly concerned with guarding its own power. In reality, rule by the people appears only a symbolic sideshow, the real exercise of power taking place behind the scenes. Dominated by the power of elite classes, democracy remains constricted, and political choices, theoretically as well as in practical sense, hardly exist. People, in fact, have very unequal access to the political process due to inequalities in political capacities, and stay outside/ in the periphery of the realm of power. It is the powerful political class entrenched in powerful social institutions who wield political power, and as such able to exploit legislative opportunities to their advantage. In reality, grabbing and consolidation of monopoly of power by a privileged dominant minority, mostly concerned with guarding its own power-a form of oligarchy- imperils democracy. Politically hyperactive sections scoring disproportionate benefits, in fact, overshadow people’s welfare. Unorganised/disorganised people associating with different parties with conflicting opinions, in fact, succumb to narrow local prejudices and stifle people’s power.

Party contact with the people to move them to the political mainstream and to influence political processes and public policy making to sustain a participatory ideal built around people’s issues and thus to transform local politics as people initiated for their welfare and empowerment ends in shambles. In the absence of effective liaison with people all these premises fail to translate into reality. Misfeasance and impropriety by vested interests and misuse of democratic institutions point to the need for bolstering and reinvigorating the political and constitutional order. It is a respite that democratic system itself has many internal sources of renewal.

Peoples’ Participation in the making of Public Policies

The prime concern of an ideal democracy is to protect individual autonomy and power, promoting equal access to the necessary means for citizens to participate meaningfully in decisions over matters that affect their lives. It is the citizens who are entitled to shape public policy. But developmental agenda projected by political parties during election time is not usually influenced by ordinary people who are often resourceless and powerless to influence to get it shaped/changed to their needs. There is, perhaps, no party mechanism to facilitate people’s role in this respect. Party leadership trying to address the problem educating people through awareness building and coordinating programmes on people’s issues is not effective.

Fostering a participatory tradition in local political culture by bringing alienated and excluded social groups into the political process would have big impact on local politics and government actions that will turn local political system and development programmes people friendly. Encouraging people at local level to be politically active through collective efforts for development will also enable them even to prop up candidates who are sensitive to people’s issues and to push for programmes on which they are concerned and have interest and control.

Although ordinary citizens lack awareness in many issues, they are not averse to influence policy in particular areas. Therefore, sustained citizen government interaction must be promoted to strengthen democracy, to resolve societal problems and make government programmes people friendly. To fructify this, people need be associated meaningfully with government programmes which must be executed as people’s action programmes with their maximum involvement. Governmental processes must be kept open to citizens to have their say in governmental actions. This will help them to empower, enlighten and engage in the process of self- governance besides enhancing their capacity to participate/influence directly in the making of decisions that affect the quality of their lives and future progress.

More than regular elections and basic political freedoms and rights, it is the collective will and choices of people that are important and must reflect in the decisions which affect their lives. It is to ensure this objective democracy envisages equal distribution of political chances to all citizens including the powerless and the impoverished who experience alienation and exclusion from the arena of political power. Democracy not only envisages power to the people, not an elite class, but also contemplates all people to have broadly equal access to the necessary means to participate meaningfully in collective decisions over matters that affect their lives. People’s participation in decision making supported by more empowering and egalitarian policies alone will lead to a truly democratic polity. Tocqueville reminded “Strong mutually respectful ‘bottom up’ pattern of democratic participation helps nations to become prosperous and decent”. This emphasises a political approach to the common problems, creating stronger links between the people and the socio-economic process. That is, people need to engage with the wider community-public purpose of development. This requires to reinvigorate citizen participation and mobilization.
Neighbourhood Deliberations.

Public participation by means of ‘neighbourhood deliberation’ by opening channels for the people to suggest meaningful and people-oriented development programmes would have profound impact on local politics, planning, policy-making and citizen empowerment, and also help energise the overall responsiveness of the system. This provides people who feel alienated from formal political processes space to articulate their views and needs in public deliberative discussions, ‘a collective process for engaging in reflective criticism’ (Bernard Williams, 1985) and listening and understanding the issues at stake. This engages people/ communities in dialogue with one another on issues and problems, sharing opinions, and inspires them to pursue shared inquiry towards solutions to public problems and concretise grounds for action. Different groups of people subscribing to different ideologies and culture can be groomed to cooperate through deliberation. (Bernard Williams, 1985, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Harvard University Press). Against the present insignificant exchange that rob the people of their autonomy, a close rapport- liaison that follows exchange of ideas between party leaders and the people develop. Revising opinions, altering premises and discovering common interests through conciliation and compromise it fosters ‘civic discovery’. Therefore, it is important that democratic processes towards public welfare are initiated with public debate with commitment to public provision of public services, people taking responsibility for their own welfare. That will enable them strive to solve public problems through public initiatives and actions. More important is that such a people-to-people cooperation at micro level for problem solving will provide for micro governance and, in due course, advance nationwide.

* (Author: Dr A. Basheer, is a political analyst, taught Political Science at Kerala University, is also the author of “Education and Empowering Backward Minorities”)

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