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Strengthening the Idea of Participatory Democracy in the Indian Context | Shalu Nigam

Saturday 22 June 2024


The results of the 18th general elections in India held in 2024 demonstrate that when the authoritarian state crudely exploits its authority, it is the common people who hold the power to end such repression, to revive the democratic spirit, and to save the idea of an egalitarian, secular, hate-free, diverse, and united India. However, the election process, as it exists today, has several problems, and is seriously impacting the concept of representative democracy. Therefore, in order to establish a strong democratic, republic, and plural India, or greater democratization, this work suggests that it is essential to move beyond the idea of representative democracy to the larger concept of participatory democracy. Strengthening people’s power or lok shakti through swaraj or self-rule as envisioned by the freedom fighters and the constitution makers is essential in the contemporary context. To rejuvenate the idea of participatory democracy, what is required is a two-step process. One, is to revitalize the decentralization process as promoted by the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, and the second is to strengthen social movements and foster proactive citizenship by empowering the marginalized.

The problems with representative democracy

Representative democracy, as practiced in India, entails holding periodic elections where representatives are elected by the people and the political parties play a central role in the process of governance. It is therefore important to ensure that the electoral process is free and fair [1]’ The Courts have clarified in several decisions that free and fair elections include the right of a voter to cast votes without fear, reprisal, duress, or coercion [2]. However, not all elections are being conducted fairly or freely [3]. Das in his controversial paper observed that the malpractices in the election process take various forms [4, 5]. Moreover, in the Chandigarh Mayor’s Election case [6], the Supreme Court observed,

“Elections at the local participatory level act as a microcosm of the larger democratic structure in the country. Local governments, such as municipal corporations, engage with issues that affect citizens’ daily lives and act as a primary point of contact with representative democracy. The process of citizens electing councillors, who in turn, elect the Mayor, serves as a channel for ordinary citizens to ventilate their grievances through their representatives – both directly and indirectly elected. Ensuring a free and fair electoral process throughout this process, therefore, is imperative to maintain the legitimacy of and trust in representative democracy.”

The Court further noted the importance of voters and their rights to state that,

“In order to maintain the purity of the electoral process, the “little cross” on the “little bit of paper” must be made only by the metaphorical “little man” walking into the “little booth” and no one else.”

Also, in the recent context, fingers have been pointed out at the Election Commission of India, which is a formidable institution responsible for conducting free and fair elections. It is supposed to be following the principles of transparency and openness, but allegedly it is acting in a secretive manner and acting unfairly [7]. Questions have been raised regarding the appointment of the Election Commissioners [8] and the methods of appointing members of the Election Commission of India [9]. All these incidents indicate that the problem with representative democracy is deep-rooted and needs thorough examination.

Scholars have also pointed out that representative democracy, in practice, has failed to address ground realities such as mitigating poverty, maintaining law and order, meeting the basic expectations of the poor, environmental protection, and providing basic services [10]. A Pew Survey conducted in 2023 [11] in 24 countries regarding the practice of representative democracy observed that 59 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with how their democracy was functioning, 74 percent thought that officials didn’t care, and 42 percent said that no political party in their country represented their views. The results show that people’s trust in representative democracy has declined over the years. Hence, representative democracy, though theoretically has a few advantages in terms of a democratic process, seems to have problems when implemented at the ground level.

The Idea of Participatory Democracy

Participatory democracy is about citizens’ engagement at the local level in the process of governance. It is a process of greater and more in-depth democratization. In some countries, it is seen as an alternative to representative democracy [12]. In his book, Democracy and Education, Dewey [15] wrote, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living or conjoint communicated experience.” For Dewey, democracy is `not simply and solely a form of government’ or a political institution, but a `way of life’. WEB DuBois [16] in the context of the USA propounded the idea of `abolition democracy’ and asserted that “the abolition democracy was the liberal movement among both labourers and small capitalists”. The aim was to abolish slavery. He described how black and white people work together to establish truly egalitarian democracy across race and class biases.

Participatory democracy empowers and educates those citizens who have been excluded from the process of decision-making through democratic citizenship [13]. Though scholars have recognized limitations with this model in terms of its neglect of power dynamics that operate in a structurally unequal society, focus on masculine values as it mirrors the gender bias that exists in society, and less attention on the learning dimension, it is argued that women when involved in the process, learn different skills through participatory democracy [14].

The deeply engrained idea of participatory democracy in the Indian context

The idea of participatory democracy is deeply embedded in the Indian context in the struggles against colonialism, the freedom movement, and the social and political processes that took place in post-colonial India. This idea of participatory democracy is about reimagining proactive citizenship for a robust and resilient democracy. More importantly, the makers of the Constitution, including Dr. BR Ambedkar and many other leaders, ensured the right to equality, liberty, and fraternity besides affirmative action in the Constitution to empower the marginalized to enable them to assert their rights in a hierarchical society.

For ages, social movements have been working around the idea of participatory democracy or the concept of `gram swaraj’ or village self-independence as articulated by MK Gandhi and represent the Indian democratic vision. Gandhi believed in the idea of voluntarism as the basis for an independent polity [17]. His legacy of Satyagraha, or seeking truth, is based on grassroot or barefoot politics where an individual observes self-restraint to serve the wider political sphere. Gandhi advocated for social action and the participation of common people while acknowledging equality in terms of their knowledge and capacities [18].

MN Roy [19] too expressed his disillusion with representative democracy and prioritized grass-roots radical democracy based on the notion of individual freedom and sovereignty. He deliberated against the idea of state ownership and a planned economy to argue that this would not end the exploitation of workers or would ensure the redistribution of wealth [20]. While drawing a connection between economic decentralization and political freedom, he visualized the idea of the people’s committees and explained that democracy will be effective only when power remains with the people, "that the individual is prior to society, and that freedom can be enjoyed by individuals." [21]

Jay Prakash Narayan also critiqued the idea of political representation by the political parties, or rajniti on the basis of his beliefs in Gandhian ideals and upheld the idea of people’s power, or lokniti, or lokshakti, which is about comprehensive, participative, and people-centred democracy based on the notion of decentralized politics and propagates the idea of social and economic justice [22]. He expressed his discontent with representative democracy based on the fact that centralized decision-making leaves the common people powerless [23]. His idea of a comprehensive democracy or `total revolution’ is grounded in the idea of the `non-party’ political process and imagined as empowering the common people in economic and political terms, which forms the base of polity from where authority flows upward on the conditions of transparency and accountability. It articulated the concept of participatory democracy in the people’s empowerment through everyday struggles for their rights and in collective struggles to harness collective wellbeing [24].

Later, several movements, such as the Bhoodan movement (land donation by the wealthy), the Sarvodaya movement (upliftment of all), the Self-Employed Women’s Association, or SEWA in Ahmedabad, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), in Rajasthan, and many others, were initiated based on these ideas of articulating the concept of participatory democracy. Many of these grass-root movements have been working before independence and initiated the `staggering diversity of innovative endeavour’ against globalization and a market-based economy where the state aligns itself with businesses and the corporate sector [25].

Different from NGOs based on the concept of welfare, philanthropic, or funded NGOs, the majority of these social movements had their origin in the freedom movement and have been existing as fragments of earlier social and political movements such as Gandhian, socialist, communist, and social reform movements as well as independent social and political activists [26]. Most of these are non-party formations, social action groups, and movements on various issues with the goal of democratizing and transforming the hierarchical, caste-based, patriarchal society [27].

These social movements are crowd-funded where people contribute through donations. For some, funding comes from people for whom these battles continue. In most of these social movements, the work is imagined in three dimensions of the Gandhian philosophy: Seva (services such as providing food to the starving and medical care to the needy), Nirman (development or running schools or dispensaries), and Sangharsh (struggles or speaking truth to the power) [28].

During the mid-1970s, many came together with the decline of institutional politics to protest against the emergency imposed by the then Indira Gandhi’s government [29]. Since then, these movements have created space for themselves, articulating the people’s concerns, during the times, when the political parties failed to fulfil their obligations toward the common people. These movements raised issues which were excluded and neglected by the politicians and advocated for the cause of the marginalized, abandoned by the bureaucracy [30]. These sustained movement politics articulated the discourse of constructive democracy as against the elite model of top-down development [31]. These movements expanded the notions of democracy and citizenship by challenging power equations.

The state, in itself, is an unfathomable entity, yet it is being held accountable through continuous persistence efforts made by proactive citizens, social movements, and civil society [32]. With rising subaltern participation and increasing grass-roots political movements, radical transformations in democratic structures are being made possible. Ackerman [33] described these kinds of socio-political reforms as “co-governance”, where citizens engage themselves with the state on a day-to-day basis.

Revitalising the Decentralization of Power Through Strengthening PRIs

The 73rd constitutional amendment during the 1990s has a checkered history, yet it was enacted to realize the provisions of Article 40 of the Indian Constitution, which is about strengthening the idea of self-governance [34]. This system is different than the khap panchayats (mostly caste-based organizations), which already existed in the village, and those which are not legitimized by the state. The purpose is to strengthen the Panchayati Raj system, which enabled the decentralization of power through gram sabhas (village councils), which has deeper implications for the human rights situations [35]. It has played a critical role in strengthening inclusive and participatory democracy by lending voices to women and marginalized sections of society in the decision-making process at the village level [36]. The Provision of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in 1996 further paved the way for consolidating the idea of self-governance.

Experiences, over the decades, show that despite problems such as bureaucratic hurdles, elite dominance, political indifference, and inconsistency in implementation, the Panchayati Raj system has managed to transform the realities [37]. Though, currently, attempts are being made by the state to weaken the Panchayati Raj Institution through budget cuts and its merger with the Rural Development Ministry, scholars suggest that greater efforts should be made to strengthen the gram sabhas and, more importantly, take steps toward decentralization of powers [38].

Consolidating gains made by the social movements

Also, post-1990s, some of the social movements kept working in tandem on anti-people’s issues as a consortium or the civil society, which included a cluster of NGOs, autonomous organizations, social movements, academics, activists, intellectuals, and many other individuals and groups with progressive ideas [39]. Many of these movements transformed and collated at the crucial juncture when the postcolonial state transformed its nature from the `welfare state’ to the `neoliberal state’. Chandoke [40] is of the view that civil society is not an institution but rather a process whereby the actors work with the state and also monitor the monopoly and the power of the state. The civil society, hence, is constantly reinventing itself.

The initiatives by civil society played a significant role in documenting the effects of policies and legislation on people and ecology. The movement claimed that the Structural Adjustment Program, at the behest of the global financial institutions and forced upon the people as economic reforms, further devastated the poor while retaining the old political and social hierarchy. Hegemonic globalization redefined social and political processes at the global level while depoliticizing development and undermining grass-roots democratic movements to pave the way for the smooth functioning of transnational corporations.

It is because of the proactive citizens and the active civil society initiatives that the Indian government during the period from 2005 to 2013, enacted several progressive laws that effectively legitimized several social and economic rights, including a national law on the right to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005; the rights of tribals under the Forest Rights Act, 2006; and the right to food under the National Food Security Act, 2013. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, makes the enrollment, attendance, and completion of schooling of every child under fourteen the obligation of the state. Through many such social legislations, theoretically, the idea of citizenship has been expanded and made these rights justiciable against the state.

The politics of civil society lie not only in addressing cases of violation rights, but simultaneously, it is expanding the political space by converting the survival of the poor into the struggles for the economic, social, and political rights of individuals, groups, and communities. The issues of development are described within the framework of rights by these social movements. Poverty, as per this paradigm, is not an economic or individual issue but is related to a larger power and social structure-related issue where an individual is pushed to vulnerability by the reasons of injustice. The poor are vulnerable because they are exploited, and excluded from the process of governance.

The majority of civil society organizations are coordinating amongst themselves to build alliances on commonly agreed principles such as opposition to communal fundamentalism, caste discrimination, resistance against destructive neoliberal development policies, and building concrete alternatives [41]. The object is to redefine the content of the hegemonical development paradigm with a focus on transparent, democratic, people-oriented governance with devolution and decentralization of power. The object is to demand the accountability of the state and to create a new political space for self-governance based on horizontal structure while dismantling hierarchies in a graded society through a long-term social and political process.

This contestation of marginalization is creating a space where elites no longer remain as custodians of democratic processes and where common people collectively claim their rights to survive with dignity. Weaving in the language of rights, addressing the everyday survival needs of citizens is also an attempt to redress power asymmetries in an uneven, unequal society. Mobilizing marginalized and oppressed people on multiple common as well as diverse interests is construing plural spaces within the public sphere. This site to assert subalterns’ voices while negotiating for citizenship rights is aiding in social transformation by reimagining proactive citizenship.

After 2014, with the rise in Hindutva politics, the state abandoned citizens and supported capitalist classes. The Hindutva forces led by the BJP expanded the neoliberal regime to drive strength from Indian big businesses and championed structural adjustment programs [42]. The organic relationship between Hindutva politics and neoliberalism pursued the consolidation of both neoliberalism and the Hindutva fascist regime, converting the Indian secular state into a fascist theocratic Hindu Rashtra [43]. This socio-economic alienation of the citizens produces political distrust.

This period witnessed dissent by the citizens, such as the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Farmers’ Protests, and many more protests by the students and the common citizens against unemployment, corruption, the educational system, and so on. These movements restructured the political opposition during the period of profound fragmentation and disengagement [44]. The protest against the CAA in 2019-2020, and the mass mobilization during the lockdown, as evident by the farmers’ protests against the ruling regime, has re-kindled a heated debate on several issues, such as survival with dignity, culture, corruption, identity, federalism, dissent, democracy, and more importantly, the `idea of India’. The continuous resilience and resistance by the common citizens against the government’s failure to uphold the constitutional values are igniting change, depicting the power of the people, and indicating the strength of democracy as imagined by the makers of the constitution.

It is this idea of the power of the common people that is reflected in the elections in 2024, where the arrogant, power-hungry state has been held accountable by the people [45]. The ruling majority, to promote its chauvinist agenda [46], pitted one community against the other and created much hype around the construction of the grand Ram temple in Ayodhya on the site where the Babri Masjid was demolished. However, it lost the mandate in Faizabad itself. In fact, the people of the state of Uttar Pradesh rejected the false narrative of hate built around lies and hypocrisy while negating the idea of bulldozer justice. Yogendra Yadav in a video stated the verdict is the victory of the lok (people) over the tantra (administration or ruling power). Mander [47] wrote that the verdict of elections in 2024 depicts that though the masses of Indian voters have favoured democratic principles and justice, yet the clouds of fascism still hang around and that “the ideological project of hate thrives in hearts and minds.”

However, history has shown that the masses of Indian society have shown wisdom and maturity when they fought to defeat the colonial forces and the dark clouds that emerged during the Emergency. The idea of dissent and equal citizenship is deeply carved into the fabric of modern Indian society, which has emerged out of the history of colonial struggle [48]. Similarly, the election results in 2024 show that despite the entire state and communication apparatus being used by the ruling forces, the masses rejected the hate to unfetter the idea of an equal and free India. It indicates that forceful oppression could not dismantle the idea of India. People stood up against this idea of dominance; they stood for what was morally right. They stood for the country and its rich legacy, not the hateful dominant ideology.

Strengthening participatory democracy is essential in the contemporary context

In the contemporary situation, when authoritarianism is denting the idea of India in all possible ways, when the rights of voters are being hampered, the institutions such as Panchayati raj among others are weakened, when the funding of the many NGOs has been curtailed, the civil society members are being arrested, and the survival of the social movements is being threatened, besides empowering common citizens with the correct facts and information to make the right decisions while voting, it is also important to strengthen participatory democracy, where the common people as proactive citizens play a wider role through democratic participation.

This requires a two-step approach: one is consolidating the gains made under the constitutional 73rd Amendment and the similar progressive social laws made to decentralize power and empower the marginalized; and the second is promoting social movements while strengthening political rights and consolidating the concept of proactive citizenship.

In order to establish a strong democratic, republic, and plural India, or greater democratization, this work suggests that it is essential to move beyond the idea of representative democracy to the larger concept of participatory democracy, or strengthening people’s power or lok shakti through swaraj or self-rule as envisioned by the freedom fighters and the constitution makers over the ages. Decentralizing power while focusing on enforcing progressive social legislation, strengthening social movements, and fostering active citizenship by empowering the common people are all essential steps to strengthening the idea of participatory democracy. Or in other words, the `little man’ or the common citizens in a democracy need to be empowered to assert their power and claim their rights.

(Author: Shalu Nigam is a lawyer, activist and a researcher working on the gender, governance, and human rights issues)


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