Time to Reclaim Democracy

This August 15, we Indians will be marking the 75th year of freedom from the clutches of Britain who came to do commerce with us and gradually took over us as our ‘lords’. The Govt of India is commemorating this year as “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav”.
The aspirations of the new India can not be met without an upgradation of democracy in India. (Photo: VOA)
The aspirations of the new India can not be met without an upgradation of democracy in India. (Photo: VOA)

This August 15, we Indians will be marking the 75th year of freedom from the clutches of Britain who came to do commerce with us and gradually took over us as our ‘lords’. The Govt of India is commemorating this year as “Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav”.

Thus, it is important to look at the health of Democracy in our country because how we shape our democracy now will have repercussions as we reach the century milestone in another 25 years.

India adopted the Parliamentary system of Democracy in 1947 and in a single stroke, gave the rights of universal suffrage to its men and women above 21 years of age - a seminal phenomenon given that it took decades of struggle for women to secure voting rights in other countries (e.g., the USA). Our constitution makers chose to go for a federal structure of the country, establishing governance at 2 levels- center and state, totally ignoring Mahatama Gandhi’s call for the 3rd level of governance at the local level. The nation had to wait until 1993 for the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments when the Panchayati Raj system was enacted into law as the third tier of governance (local governance/ Teesri Sarkar). It is to be noted that Gandhi had advocated the Village Republic.

Let Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav be a clarion call to usher in an era of ‘Unto This Last’ as envisioned by Ruskin, ‘Sarvodya’ by Gandhi, and ‘Lok Swarajya’ by JP. (Photo: NewsGram)
Let Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav be a clarion call to usher in an era of ‘Unto This Last’ as envisioned by Ruskin, ‘Sarvodya’ by Gandhi, and ‘Lok Swarajya’ by JP. (Photo: NewsGram)

Lok Tantra or Party Tantra?

Our constitution is not very explicit about the place or role of political parties. In this background, it is astonishing how much in the last 7 decades, our Loktantra has become synonymous with political parties and party leaders. So much so that Party System (party tantra) has taken over Loktantra. Party leaders with ‘larger than life’ images aided by opaque undisclosed political funding, high command culture, and the public’s servitude-like mindset towards the netas (mai baap syndrome) have transformed political parties into no less than mafias. But for the public, democracy has largely been reduced to a festival of elections where voters have just 2-3 options: Go to the polling booth and either cast a vote in favor of a candidate who is IMPOSED upon us by political parties, or take out the frustration by pressing a toothless NOTA or whine away by sitting at home. The general refrain is that political parties are synonymous with moneybags, muscle power and lung power. And on top of that, the political parties pitch us the citizens of India into they Vs us. The more they are able to polarize us, the more they flourish. When scams surface (wads of notes tumbling out of closets of Partha Chatterjee’s accomplices, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) grabs politicians for corruption or financial frauds, or horse tradings happen (jet planes skying around from Surat to Assam and then Goa and then back to Mumbai), we the people haplessly watch the explosives with a listlessness previously unknown.

The question arises: Is this the democracy we wanted?

The clear answer is No. The Parliamentary democracy with the ills of party-based politics -albeit widely prevalent in the world- is not an ideal form of democracy. Centralization of power and Machiavellian conduct have become the norm for party-based politics and politicians.

Loknayak Jai Prakash Narayan, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, MN Roy, Anna Hazare. (Photo: NewsGram, Wikimedia Commons)
Loknayak Jai Prakash Narayan, Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, MN Roy, Anna Hazare. (Photo: NewsGram, Wikimedia Commons)

Indian Alternative?

However, let us look back. With a rich and glorious civilization history, the Indian democracy ethos even precedes the Greek and Roman democracy models. From Vedic times, there are solid records of how local governance (direct democracy) was rooted in our villages.

There are some original ideas that we can take from our thought leaders which were ignored in the last several decades, and now merit re-attention. They provide refreshing solutions to the ‘partybaazi’ that is crippling our democracy.

What we need is a refined model of Participatory Democracy: a democracy that flows from the bottom up and not the other way around.

From MN Roy to Gandhi to Loknayak Jai Prakash Narayan, they espoused partyless democracy. MN Roy had appealed for forming peoples’ committees as early as 1944. Gandhi had suggested that Congress be dissolved and advocated seeds of democracy be sown in form of Village republics (Gram Sabhas) in free India. Later on, JP Narayan who had shunned party-based politics in the 1950s refined his ideas and came out in support of “Lok Swarajaya”. He advocated for fielding Lok Ummedwars (candidates chosen via peoples’ committees or Matdaata Parishads ) to contest elections. In contemporary times, Anna Hazare and Bajrang Muni have also been advocating for a model that gives power to the people at grassroots levels.

The aspirations of the new India can not be met without an upgradation of democracy in India. The country badly needs reforms at electoral, judicial, and administrative levels. But the party-based polity is acting as a stumbling block. Seven decades of experience has shown that the elected MPs (‘enslaved’ by political parties) may keep providing us incremental changes, but will not work on radical reforms.

Thus the challenge to deepen our democracy has to be taken up by the people. The time has come that We, the people decided to come out of the shackles of slavery imposed upon us by these elected politicians. There is a need for a new peoples’ movement (aandolan) that chalks out a reforms-driven agenda (e.g., electoral reforms). And then the people choose through a system of grassroots democracy their own candidates (Lok Pratinidhi) who contest against the party-imposed candidates and go to Parliament to enact upon the agenda. The following slogan sums up the emotions succinctly: “Ek baar ye naara do, umeedwar hamara ho”.

The proposed movement will have to work on two fronts: i) educate the public and amplify the dissatisfaction with party-based ills and ii) motivate them to go for the success of this proposed “Jan Sansad”.

Let Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav be a clarion call to usher in an era of ‘Unto This Last’ as envisioned by Ruskin, ‘Sarvodya’ by Gandhi, and ‘Lok Swarajya’ by JP.

The author is a Chicago-based medical doctor.

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