Transforming Indian democracy from infantile to intelligent

The country is still reeling from the dionysian revelries that followed the recent elections. For the second time in a long time, we wielded our democratic power in a massive and decisive way. The entire Indian society will now resume its watching, like cricket fans from the gallery, of the Modi team’s work for the next five years.

In a healthy functioning democracy, the power of the electorate goes far beyond the mere act of choosing its leaders. It goes further and casts a many-sided influence even on policymaking; it modulates the governing process at every step. Ideally, a citizen’s influence on governance — if we accept that there is such a thing — should be a daily operation, not on a five-yearly one.

Let me draw a casual example narrated by a relative who lives in the city of Charlotte in North Carolina, United States. There is a wonderful local, community library (an almost extinct species in India) in their neighbourhood. I have seen the library myself and was quite impressed with the breadth and depth of topics on which it offers literature. It is a shining instance of the value the American society gives to the printed letter, to knowledge, to education. At one time, apparently, the city was running short of money in supporting the library; so, services were cut down, the number of working hours slashed. The community protested. Complaints piled up. Soon, the city somehow found the money to restore the full services of the library.

That’s democracy in action at local, microscopic level. The same local influence would work in most major decisions that affect the life of the community. Should we build a flyover? Should we clean the local lake? Should we install a dumpster on such and such street? Should we add a public school? A park? A toilet? In everything the community would have a say. That said, I don’t know if such a system would work in India. In our predominantly top-down culture, we are usually helpless bystanders as our civic and civil environments swirl in a suffocating mess around us.

 

 

Historically the relationship between the Indian society and its rulers has been one of ward and caretaker, a wailing infant and its doting if haughty parent. It was that way in times or royal rule. It was that way in colonial India. (The Indian National Congress used to petition to the colonial rulers to dole out sops, an attitude that was criticised by Sri Aurobindo as “mendicant policy”). The hangover has not waned even in post-independent India. Let’s face it — ours is a relatively infantile society.

Whether it is at the level of an individual or society, the first and foremost form of help that one may expect to receive is self-help. The whole point of rule “by the people” is just that. There is a mature and responsible role that each citizen has to play, and there is likewise a role for the government. Leaving the reins completely in the hands of the government is a bad idea for any nation populated by conscious, mature and capable citizenry.

For the populace to exert such a detailed influence on governance, the society must be adequately mature, armed with the relevant knowledge. There must be a massive nationwide drive to arm the society with knowledge — in vernacular languages — in domains that directly affect lives of people such as education, climate, and urban planning including water, energy, health, and so on. Policy should be determined by think tanks operating in domains of public relevance, comprising of individuals unaffiliated with any government body. The job of such organisations/groups would be to constantly collect, curate and distribute relevant knowledge freely among members of the society.

Armed with such knowledge, Indian society would not have to resort to behaving like an eternal cry-baby, but work proactively with the government as an equal partner, constantly recognising and realising its growth potential and guarding itself where it must. The government will then cease to be an authoritarian insititution, and instead simply serve as a convenient and elaborate mechanism by which Indian society uplifts itself. It would not matter then what party is at the top; the country would have launched itself on a secure and irresistible path to self-sustaining glory.

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