Thursday, January 7, 2010

Elections & Votes … Are These All to Democracy?

Elections are commonly viewed as the key element of democracy. In deed, they are but they are one of the key elements. When democracy is understood in terms of democratic representation, it is easier to understand that it entails a far more complex process that extends well beyond elections. Citizens participate in governance through a multiplicity of activities - among them interaction with their chosen representative, and getting their chosen representatives and others influenced through participation in voluntary associations, social movements, interest groups, and nongovernmental organizations-all of which enable citizens to voice common concerns and influence public policy between elections. Through these they are able to have a voice in decisions that govern them. Representative democracy is therefore not just about the elected representatives but it is the broad framework of ‘mediated politics’. How the elected representatives will be influenced by mediated politics is not determined by their skills to read and write (it is good if they have these skills) but by their intellect, ability to analyse, ability to see the interlinkages and impact of their actions, ability to express in any medium that is understood by the key group whose interests they are representing and so on.

Since representative democracy can remain representative only by being in an environment of integrated multiple channels of interaction, what is needed is also that the chosen representatives are people who are part of multiplicity of activities or initiatives in which their electorate are engaged. That means they need to be people who are rooted (even by the process of transplantation/naturalisation/adoption/immigration) in their constituencies and so that they link the constituencies with the political system. The repercussion of a lack of this rootedness and all the other abilities that are mentioned in the first paragraph is the representatives cannot see the various interest groups in their constituency, do not hear different voices that would enable them to represent all interests.

If criteria like minimum education qualification becomes a minimum eligibility condition for contesting election, it runs the risk of pushing those out who have all the abilities to be a representatives but lack the reading and writing skills. It also runs the risk of further marginalizing the those who are educationally marginalized because they may prefer their interests to be represented by one of them. Usually the educationally marginalized are also socially, economically, and/or politically marginalized. Therefore, the imposition of the minimum education qualification as is sought, say in an employee in a public or private sector, runs the risk of not giving representation to, for example, women because in a country like India, majority of them are illiterate. This does not foretell well in a country where women’s interests and numbers both remain largely unrepresented. Such a requirement pushes back the representation of the disabled, dalits, and many other such interest groups.

Also there is a need to break the perception that only those citizens who take part in election and are interested in party politics are active citizens and keeping democracy alive. Citizens who identify with certain political parties do mediate the politics through their participation and opinions and therefore through the political parties play a role in the political process. But lack of engagement with on decline in engagement with in party politics does not signal the absence from mediated politics. Similarly non-exercise of the right to vote does not mean disengagement or social disinterest in politics. These citizens usually still influence politics through their engagement in media (including internet and traditional media), social and interest groups and many other forms of organized or informal interactions. Often, those who are ‘disgusted’ or ‘disappointed’ with the current day politicians or those contesting elections, they resort to other outlets, platforms, and means of engagement that influence or are a part of political mediations. Rise of protest and social movements and social accountability measures like gender audits and social audits, emergence and mushrooming of interest groups, creative ways to institutionalize participation like participatory development and budgeting, community policing, etc, are an example of ‘non-party political engagement’. This kind of situation does not symbolise decline in citizen’s political participation rather it means a decline in party and vote based politics and growth in 'personalised politics'. It is also a sign that the strength of political parties is going to decline gradually, particularly, in terms of their ability to mobilise electorate. This is already evidenced by the proliferation of the smaller political parties, regional parties, independents, and weakening of the major political parties in India. This also keeps democracy alive as these citizens may have chosen not to exercise their right to vote but by their 'personalised politics', they are still being effective citizens in the sense that they are still mediating politics of the place/region/nation.

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