Home >Opinion >Online-views >Education key to quality public representation

The question of palpable tensions between electability and functional ability of an elected representative has always figured as a prominent theme in contemporary discourse about democracy the world over. This discourse often opens with a matter-of-fact observation that democracies are increasingly being seen as failing to deliver. Many believe that while acceptability of democracy continues to be unquestionable, there is enough empirical evidence suggesting that efficacy of democratic governance has always remained doubtful.

Of the several factors responsible for this abysmally low result orientation of democratic governance, the most commonly discussed one is about the quality of elected representatives. Those who get party nomination, by hook and, in some parties, possibly even by crook, are more often than not unable to boast of any high personal qualifications. Electability, or ability to get elected, remains the single-most decisive factor in awarding a party ticket. This is bound to affect quality of representation, impacting deliberations, decision-making and delivery in a democratic setup. And being a part of competitive democratic polity, there is an obvious limitation for any single party taking a meritocratic view. Obviously then, electability becomes the common single denominator, leading to a situation where people get a representative that they in fact do not deserve.

Driven by the need to overcome this quality crunch, different democracies have evolved some screening mechanisms. Measures such as a term limit to facilitate entry of fresh blood, qualifying thresholds for parties and candidates, age limit and similar such regulatory provisions were introduced by different countries at different levels.

Last August, Haryana amended the existing law, mandating that matriculation is required for a general male candidate, middle pass for a general woman candidate and for Scheduled Caste (SC) male candidate and only Class V pass for an SC woman candidate, as the minimum educational qualifications to be eligible for contesting the elections to the Gram Panchayats, or village bodies, and other Panchayati Raj institutions. Having a functional toilet at home was also made a mandatory eligibility criterion for candidates.

Many opposed the amendment, which was later contested in the apex court as well. It was argued that whether a man or woman, SC or general, the functions of a panchayat member is the same and hence if a Class 5 pass is enough to discharge a member’s function, why has a higher qualification of middle pass and matriculation pass been imposed? It was also argued that the amendment goes against the spirit behind the principle of adult franchise. However, much to the dismay of the critics, the apex court upheld the amendment, which is now in force. In fact, the state went ahead with elections to village bodies under this amended act and its impact is highly remarkable and hence noteworthy!

There are many achievements that have truly created a new history. For the first time, Haryana, a state that had acquired a bad name for female foeticide, saw several young women making it to the positions of sarpanch! Also, most elections were held without any violence, the reason being that many hooligans were automatically driven out of the fray.

It has also helped achieve greater gender justice as the number of women making it to rural local self-government institutions has gone beyond the quota limit of 33%. The state has as many as 43% women members across its Zila Parishads while in Taluka Panchayats, the proportion of women is 42%. More importantly, a total of 41% villages are now headed by a woman as its chief, or Sarpanch.

A by-product of this new measure, making minimum education mandatory, is that the fierceness of the contests disappeared hugely. Of the total 70,071 seats for which elections were held, in as many as 39,249 seats the elections were unanimous. This takes the number of consensus candidates to a whopping 56%! Again, of the total 6,187 Sarpanchs elected, 274 got the mandate unanimously.

Much to the surprise of many, this amendment, being assailed as “meritocracy"-promotion has also led to social democracy with greater representation to the marginal sections of society. The table below is testimony to the fact that many more backward class candidates have made it to the elected bodies, leaving the statutory quota figures far behind.

Those who relish criticizing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would do well to understand that a BJP-ruled state has sent several backward class candidates from non-quota seats to the elected bodies, promoting greater social harmony.

However, one thing is beyond doubt: the real test of the impact of these amendments will be in the way these representatives conduct themselves. This will largely depend on the quality of deliberations, decision-making and delivery. Also under watch will be their public conduct. Happily, both chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and rural development minister O.P. Dhankar, the co-architects of these reforms, are conscious of this and they are working on a massive capacity building campaign for these newly elected representatives.

When popular confidence in democracy is under severe strain, mainly due to the quality of public representation, although debatable, reforms-oriented experiments are always very important. Not satisfied with mere shedding of tears about the degenerations of our democratic system, particularly the quality of representation, Haryana has taken a bold step. The apex court has already validated these reforms. Now, it is for the new entrants in Haryana’s Panchayati Raj institutions to establish that quality representation also leads to good governance, helping achieve egalitarian goals of a society where justice, harmony and avenues for aspirations are accessible to all.

Vinay Sahasrabuddhe is the national vice-president of the BJP. The views expressed here are in his personal capacity.

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