For the first time in many decades, citizens from democracies around the world are simultaneously dealing with fundamental issues—jobs and poverty in the US, Britain and the European Union, economic malaise and natural disaster in Japan, poor access to opportunity and excessive graft in India, South Africa and Brazil and a myriad other countries. Citizens are frustrated with the state of affairs and their elected representatives and are showing their anger through protests (Wall Street, London, Greece, La Paz and New Delhi to name just a few).
A confused state prevails in democracies around the world. One common strain running through the protests and confusion is a desire for citizens to get directly involved in policymaking. There is a feeling among the people of many democracies that “direct democracy” would bring less pain and better results.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines democracy as “a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives”. The pure form of direct democracy means citizens decide for themselves directly without having to go through representatives. The most common instruments of direct democracy are the referendum, initiative and recall. Referendum is the people’s power to approve or reject legislation. Initiative is the power to decide on policy initiated by someone other than the legislature. Recall is the power to vote an elected official out of office. Participative democracy usually involves some measures of direct democracy within the context of an electoral democracy.
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Provisions for direct democracy exist in a few countries around the world. Switzerland at the federal and regional (cantonal) levels and several states in the US enjoy the greatest degree of direct participation. Switzerland, for example, enjoys a rather wide right to recall at the federal and cantonal levels. Some states in the US allow initiatives on both constitutional and legislative matters. The most famous of these, Proposition 13 of 1978 in California, set a maximum rate for ad valorem taxes on real property. Many countries enjoy a limited privilege. In Britain, which has an unwritten constitution, referendums have been held very rarely. The most recent of these held in May was the “UK alternative vote system”, which was rejected by 68% of those who voted (42% of registered voters).
The words “referendum”, “initiative” and “recall” do not appear in the Indian Constitution. No alternative to electoral democracy was anticipated in the framing of our Constitution. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, allow a limited form of participative direct democracy through the gram sabhas, or bodies of registered villagers. In recent times, Anna Hazare and his team have triggered a great interest on this topic in India. Is it time for India to adopt a measure of direct democracy?
There are two categories of objections to the widespread acceptance of direct democracy. The philosophical critique is primarily that direct democracy is not capable of dealing with complex issues, particularly when combined with inter-issue prioritization. The practical objection is that the people do not have the time or inclination to participate on a continual basis in running the government and that the cost of involving the population on multiple issues is very high. At the same time, a number of profound thinkers have supported direct democracy in some form. Coming from very different backgrounds and perspectives, Mahatma Gandhi, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jayaprakash Narayan and Theodore Roosevelt have all made passionate arguments in favour of a more participative form of democracy. oosevelt said in his famous Charter on Democracy delivered to the Ohio Constitutional Convention in 1912: “I believe in the initiative and the referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it when ever it becomes misrepresentative.”
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I believe that the time has indeed come for India to adopt constitutional provisions for some measure of participative democracy at the urban local government, state and Union levels. This privilege should be limited to two instruments—the referendum and the recall. With the advent of electronic voting, the Internet and social media (despite the lack of widespread availability in India), the cost of administering such instruments is declining. As a practical matter, legislation can be framed around the constitutional provision to restrict use to the “rarest of rare” issues, and primarily those involving Roosevelt’s sentiment of representative government becoming non-representative. In my view, the initiative as a privilege should not be granted to citizens. Most issues of modern society are too complex and nuanced for a loose coalition of laymen to draft a comprehensive piece of legislation that will stand the test of time and circumstance.
Alas, even a measure of participative democracy is no panacea. Ultimately, there is no substitute for holding the institutions of democracy accountable to high moral and performance standards. There is no single magic bullet for that.
PS: Gandhi talked of a utopian Ramraj, which is a non-violent, purely democratic, stateless society. He himself realized that it was not achievable.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org