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Direct Democracy

The Next Gen Democracy for India!

27-Oct-2007
Almost everyone in India, as everywhere else, is fed up of politicians. They are perceived as two faced and unreliable with priorities other than the welfare of the country at the top of their agenda. Politicians reach out to people at election times and for the rest of 5yrs are virtually inaccessible. Once in power they behave like autocratic rulers with little humility or regard for rules. Is this true democracy? Is this Government OF the people, FOR the people and BY the people?

In the Parliamentary System of governance it is impossible to do without political parties. Attempts to reform the system have failed because of the inherent nature of Parliamentary democracy. Only the rich and mighty contest and win elections, a majority of ordinary Indians cannot even afford to stand for elections.

So, is party politics the only viable form of democracy? Is it possible for people to govern themselves without the need of intermediaries (politicians)?

Democracy has evolved from the time of Magna Carta in 1215 when King John agreed to share power with a small group of barons; from absolute monarchy, to rule by landed aristocracy, to what we have today: a number of parties claiming to rule on the people’s behalf. In all these power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. The “steering wheel” has never been in the hands of a common man.

The next logical step in the evolution of democracy would be to give that steering wheel in the hands of common people. Rule by political parties can never be true democracy. Democracy can be based only on the will of citizens as individuals. This concept wherein every citizen has power to run the government is called Direct Democracy.

Practiced in Switzerland since the 1850’s, in a number of US States, Canada and in a few European Parliaments, Direct Democracy, means everyone has the power to make or amend rules, seek referendums or recall elected legislatures. Initiative, Referendum and Recall are the three pillars of Direct Democracy.

Initiative: Initiative gives every citizen the power to initiate any legislation in the Parliament, State or Local assembly, if he has the required support of fellow citizens. If more than 2% of electorate sign on draft proposed by a citizen in Switzerland, then the central government is forced to consider the draft. If it does not agree with the draft then the government has to call a binding referendum on it. 23 States in US allow citizens to initiate State wide legislation. In New England (US) anyone can walk in a town hall meeting and initiate or vote for a legislation.

Referendum: With 50,000 signatures any citizen in Switzerland can call for a binding referendum on any law passed by the legislature. In France, Australia, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania any constitutional amendment has to be approved by a referendum. While not mandatory, in UK the government calls for referendums on controversial issues like the one on joining the EU held recently. Canada twice held referendums in Quebec to assess people’s opinion on whether Quebec should secede from Canada and form a separate country. Both times the motion was defeated and Quebec remains a part of Canada. Can such referendums be held to assess people’s opinion on a solution for Kashmir? Is not holding a referendum better for the country to solve political disputes, rather than going on strikes and damaging government property, which results in massive economic loss and cause inconvenience to the public?

Recall: Power to recall asserts the supremacy of citizens. A recall petition signed by 20% of the electorate results in the legislature being recalled in Switzerland. While 18 US States allow citizens to similarly recall State legislatures, almost all allow recall of district officials. In Canada and Venezuela citizens can recall even the President. Would not the threat of recall force our elected representatives to do some work? Would our elected representatives stop behaving like autocrats if they knew their term may not last 5yrs?

To summarize: Most of us in India are probably unaware of our ability to rule ourselves without the need of politicians. Politicians are loath to give up their powers, so to expect them to usher in the much needed revolution is unrealistic. Change will come in only when people demand change and demand will arise from information and debate. Numerous reasons will be advanced to show that India is not ready for it, but then such reasons were also put up when secret ballot and universal suffrage were introduced. So debate we must; for debate is the first step towards true direct democracy.


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