- kewal sethi
modern democracy is mainly based on the premises that voting in an election of representative body is sufficient to fulfill the ideal of co-determination. the people leave their decision making rights for a certain period of time to an assembly, which in principle, ought to be a cross section of the people and which, therefore, ought to reflect the opinion of the people. in practice we have very little of such representative character. in india, the candidates are selected by party leaders; they are elected by the voters on the principle of first past the post which means that they may not represent the majority of even those who voted; after elections they are controlled by party whips and are not able to reflect the views of the those who elected them. there is no mechanism by which they can ascertain the views, on particular issues, of their areas which sent them to the assembly nor do they attempt to create any such mechanism.
it is to overcome these shortcomings of representative democracy that it was proposed and accepted by many countries around the world that important decisions should be subject to the popular vote. further the citizens should have right to instruct or to recall their representatives. we have, in this essay, termed it as direct democracy.
we intend to examine the relation between direct and representative democracy and how they can coexist in a mutually, reinforcing way. direct democracy may be the path for involving the people in decision making at the highest level. there have been instances when it has also been used to manipulate the electorate and to bypass the legislature, rules and regulations. direct democracy is in addition to the routine elections which are held at periodical intervals. time which elapses between these elections may be agonizing long. some of the decisions taken by the representatives become so ingrained in the national life that subsequently elected representatives cannot undo them even if the electorate feels like throwing them out. direct democracy increases the accountability of the government and the representatives in real time.
the direct democracy can be defined as the publicly recognized institution where the public can decide or emit their opinions on issues other than through legislative and executive elections. such voting may be called referendum or plebiscite, recall, or initiative. the voting has to be through the secret and impartial ballot box. the decision made in such referendum can be binding on the executive and the legislature or it can be only consultative. another method of classification can be whether the referendum is proactive or reactive i.e. to introduce a new system or vote on preservation of old system. another way of categorising can be whether the decision to have the referendum is top down or bottom up i.e. whether it is initiated by legislature or by the citizens. in other words, who initiates, what its purpose is, and whether it is the final word are the three aspects which we should consider in discussing the efficacy of direct democracy.
who initiates can be three way choice. it is started by a signature campaign of the citizens; it is ordered by the executive or the legislature; or it is built into the constitution. the purpose can be to introduce a new provision; or merely the preservation of the existing one. finally it is to be examined whether it is the last word on the subject; or whether it can be modified or even simply ignored. there is always a case where the ruling party can initiate a sponsored signature drive to make it appear to be citizen initiative. on the other hand there are mandatory plebiscites ordained by law. no individual initiates them. a facultative plebiscite is more common, especially in latin america where the legislature or the executive or both submit a proposal to the voters. depending upon their view, it becomes law immediately. such referendums are used to formalize the policies, at variance with the earlier policies. this is also used sometimes to bypass the legislature, a direct appeal to the citizens. another instance can be the drive by some organizations to collect signature to force a referendum (student unions in colombia, in 1990, succeeded in getting a referendum done for amendment of constitution though this was only consultative and not binding). the percentage of voters signing the petition for referendum differs from country to country. in hungary, slovenia, and switzerland it is 2 to 3 percent. while in uruguay, it is 25 %.
a special provision is regarding recall of a representative. some people do not consider it as part of direct democracy because it relates to a person and not an issue. the recall may be for simply terminating the tenure of the elected official or, simultaneously, electing a new representative. an example in recent year is the recall of california governor joseph graham davis and simultaneous election of arnold schwarzenegger. at national level, recall of president hugo chavez in venezuela in 2004 may be the recent example (the recall did not succeed).
in federal countries, another feature intervenes. the change should not only be supported by majority of voters but also by the majority of the states (or units) which makes it a little more difficult preposition. a peculiar feature in some states is that for a referendum to be valid, a minimum percentage of voters must record their preference. in uruguay, it is 35 %. but in lithuania, it is 75 % for constitutional issues. a boycott call (resorted to in italy when defeat is expected) may be a way to defeat the proposal. a noteworthy example was in 1926 in germany when communists and socialists wanted confiscation, without compensation, of the property of nobility. a boycott call by others resulted in voting percentage of 39.1 whereas quorum was 50 percent. of those who voted 96.1 % were in favour and just 3.9 % against.
another hurdle is the consideration of the rights of minorities or of a significant proportion of section of voters. in switzerland, the right of women to vote was thwarted because the men would not vote for such a change. the attempt was made first time in 1958 but was rejected..they finally got the right in 1971 though some cantons continued to exclude women till late eighties. in 1990, the last canton fell in line with the federal law.
an important point to be noted is the list of subjects on which referendum can be held, or rather, those on which it cannot be held. in hungary, referendum is specially barred in 18 subjects. one is the electoral law. others include the central budget, taxation, custom tariffs, conditions for local taxes. of course the international treaties, dissolution of parliament, declaration of war or emergency are not subject to referendum.
it goes without saying that direct democracy, just like representative democracy, has to be accompanied by fair voting pattern, by freedom of expression, freedom of association and a transparent decision making and its implementation. direct democracy instruments may be state induced or may be on the initiative of the citizens, but the mechanism has to be a settled part of constitution, convention and practice. it is important that in direct democracy, the majority cannot be impervious to the views or the welfare of the minorities. all instruments have their own weaknesses and it should be the endeavour to ensure that these weaknesses are not allowed to damage the cohesion which must be present in a nation. on the other hand, as with other instruments, we should not discard DD just because it is misused sometimes.
direct democracies in the past have proved certain points and have also exposed their weakness. in india, we have vaishali often quoted as an ideal direct democracy effort, notwithstanding that a king presided over the territory but the decisions were taken by the citizens collectively. in greece, athens and some other cities are quoted as examples of direct democracy. but it must be noted that all these examples dealt with a small compact territory, and the joint meetings could be managed. what we are now concerned with are states much larger in size and more varied than before.
democracy has had a gradual widening of its sphere. in the twentieth century the emphasis was on registering more and more voters who would participate in the elections. also the levels at which the voters can choose their representatives have multiplied. in india, we have village level panchayats, block level panchayats and the district level panchayats. besides we have irrigation panchayats, forest development panchayats, and many others. in cities we have nagar panchayats, municipal committees and municipal corporations. we have lowered the voting age to eighteen to bring in more citizens to the polling booths.
another recent trend is that decentralisation has come to the forefront. due to this decentralization and the growing awareness about the rights of the citizens, the challenges have shifted to a different level, viz. the need for transparency. access, and accountability. high level of civic disaffection, distrust of political parties, in fact the animosity towards the entire democratic game has increased. the representatives, once elected, do not have to contact the voters till the next election. exercising the right to vote once in five years does not bring democracy to voter level. city republics were the political milieu which demonstrated the equality and sovereignty of the its members. the four pillars of democracy continue to be freedom, equality, sovereignty, and control. seen from this angle the democracy in india today is more of oligarchy with a façade of democracy. the corridors of power, the kitchen cabinet, the control of political party high command on the elected representatives are hallmarks of the present situation. it is as rousseau said, "the english falsely consider themselves to be free. they are free only during the elections. as soon as members are elected, the people is enslaved".
direct democracy has now entered the field in many countries. in some of them, they are in conflict with representative democracy. their role, even where it exists, is considered to be marginal. but it is a matter of satisfaction that the instances of direct democracy are growing. in united states, the issues are put before the voters along with the normal election of the representatives every four years. the practice started in 1894 and till 2008 there were 5,342 such direct votes. of these 3,285 were on the initiative of the legislature or the executive and 2057 by the citizens. however, switzerland is the most prodigious employer of direct democracy. it had 228 direct votes in 25 years between 1984 and 2009.
in india, the idea of direct democracy is still in its infancy. the constitution makers did not consider it necessary to go to the people for small issues or major policy decisions. in fact there are some important aspects of governance where even the consent of the representatives is not necessary. these include treaty with other countries. changing the rules for the atomic energy, introduction of FDI in retail are recent examples. though they involved fundamental changes, yet the people or their representatives had no say in these decisions. direct democracy has entered the scene recently and only marginally. it has taken the form of decentralization of constitutional authorities. the views of the citizens on specific issues are not sought.
the 73rd and the 74th constitutional amendments have laid down the basis of decentralization. but it provides for direct democracy in the form of gram sabhas for the villages. the gram sabha can deliberate on matters concerning their villages. similarly in the towns and cities, ward committees are provided for. the exact composition is not prescribed and it is for the states to make suitable provisions.
some states have taken the initiative to enact laws which provide for recall of the elected sarpanch (in rural areas) and of mayor and president (in urban areas). madhya pradesh and chhattisgarh initiated this movement and recently bihar has joined it. but the mechanism is still imperfect. the initiative for recall has to come from the members of the gram panchayats, municipal committees and corporations. three fourth of the members of these bodies can propose a recall which will then be put to vote. in madhya pradesh between 2000 and 2011, there were 27 such attempts out of which 14 were successful while in 13 the incumbent retained his seat. signature campaign by the citizens has not yet been introduced.
where does the concept of swaraj of mahatma gandhi or of kejriwal fit in this analysis. mahatma gandhi said, "my idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is necessary". regarding the institutional set up, he says, "the government of the village will be conducted by a panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. these will have all the authority and jurisdiction required, this panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office".
we do not get any idea of how the village republic would be linked to other village republics or the central authorities the question of recall or the modalities of getting the views of the villagers are not discussed. perhaps the recall would not be necessary as he talks of annual elections. the organization of state is not discussed or disclosed. but then it was written in 1929 when the main question was about getting the british to leave (and it could justifiably be said that india resided in villages). it just mentioned village republics and left it at that. the above quotations are from his newspaper 'harijan' in 1942 or thereabout wherein he explained what his concept was.
kejriwal has his book swaraj published 80 years later. unfortunately it is all a description of what is wrong with the present system and just a few anecdotes of work done where gram sabha or a honest sarpanch is in control. what emerges is a general concept that gram sabha should have control over all government personnel, schools, hospitals, land, forest produce etc. but when it comes to relationship with others, it says, "in the system that we are proposing gram sabhas will be able to take all decisions which will be within the purview of the law. they will not be given right to take decision beyond the constitution and the law under which they operate". about the direct democracy, the reference is that if five percent of gram sabhas propose a specific law, the legislature will refer it to all the gram sabhas in the state. if more than fifty percent gram sabhas approve the proposal, it will be enacted as a law. presumably, in the city and town areas, the resident welfare association will also have similar say but it has not been spelled out. the question of recall or of referendum on a law affecting the citizens as a whole are not deliberated upon.
there can be another instance of referendum in which the popular will of the people force the legislature to order a new law. one can point out the anna hazare agitation on creation of jan lokpal. there was such an upsurge of popular demand that the measure, postponed for decades on one pretext or other, was taken up and enacted (though with some delay). in many countries. where DD is practiced, this would have triggered a referendum on the issue. this can be called legislative popular initiative.
coming back to our theme of direct democracy, it is noted this should not be at the cost of the representative democracy. the acceptance of issues posed in referendum depends upon the mobilization by the organized partisan groups operating outside the conventional legislative arena while accepting the political game within the formal representative units. some of the important issues which have a nationwide repercussions have to be left out. the formal elected representative bodies will remain and carry on with routine administration and legislative work including formulation of budget and general superintendence of the executive.
before we close, we must cast a look on the negative aspects of DD. one thing to be considered is whether the electorate is mature enough to take a decision on an important issue. how sure we can be that they are not misled by extraneous issues. again how stable can the electorate be in its views. otherwise a subsequent referendum may upset a decision taken just a short time before. such a situation will lead to instability. the third point to be considered is how the 'tyranny of majority' can be avoided. all these are weighty questions which should be discussed and debated upon before we launch our own version of direct democracy. in short how to avoid direct democracy becoming monocracy. we have an enviable record of free and fair polls and it should not be difficult to lay down systems for direct democracy.
direct democracy is reasonable barometers for society, even where the democratic institutions are weak (and probably india comes in that category). they force a tuning between the professional politicians and the citizens. they can work as the safety outlets for political pressures while allowing normal government to be carried on. for this it is necessary that mandatory provisions should be made in the constitution wherein, based on experience of other countries, suitable safeguards can be provided. suitable mechanism should be created for conducting the referendum or the plebiscite it would be necessary to lay down how these shall be held and how the results shall be treated. having said all this, we can end with the disclaimer that direct democracy is not a panacea for all the ills of democracy. nevertheless it a step towards better democracy.