Sunday, 5 January 2014

Beyond voting: Why we can’t outsource change to netas

What a sad reflection on the Delhi voter that a 67 percent turnout in an assembly election is being hailed as record-breaking and historic. The missing names in the voters’ lists and other glitches that prevented people from voting would not have made more than a difference of a few percentage points. It is the lowest voter turnout in the country (as it has always been) from a place where whining by the people is perhaps the highest.
Those lower down in the class hierarchy – the lower middle class and the poor – have always made up the bulk of the voters in Delhi. It is the relatively better-off and the well-heeled who preferred to grumble about The System in the comfort of their homes instead of actually getting out and doing something about it, even if it is just to take a couple of hours off on a holiday to stand in a queue and vote. They didn’t need to, because they could manage The System, regardless of who was in power. Maybe this section also came out to vote this year.
Various explanations are being offered for this year’s high turnout – the galvanising chutzpah of the Aam Aadmi Party, the Narendra Modi appeal and the dissatisfaction with the Sheila Dikshit government – but one will have to wait for the results to see which of these proved decisive. But it isn’t about this year alone. Depressing as the voter turnout scenario is, one must perhaps take grudging cheer from the fact that it has been increasing over the years. Something is obviously changing.
But does this indicate a more active engagement with politics and democracy, as almost the entire commentary on this year’s phenomenon seems to suggest? Voting during elections is seen as sufficient for doing one’s duty by democracy. Once that is done, everyone retreats into their apathetic, insular worlds for another five years. That is where the problem lies.
Engagement with democracy cannot be merely a quinquennial affair involving pressing a button on a voting machine. It involves being in a constant state of alert and speaking out – on everything from overflowing drains to corruption in high places. It is about keeping the pressure on elected representatives through the five years and not just at the end of that period.
It is also about the way we engage with our immediate environs, taking responsibility for our actions or non-actions, as the case may be. There is little point in knowingly flouting the law and bribing officials to, say, build an unsafe structure and then blame only politicians and officials when disaster strikes.
There is little point in turning away when a woman is being harassed or not accompanying someone who has been to a police station and following up a complaint and then blaming the government for lack of women’s safety.
Harassment bribes can be fought; there are mechanisms for that. It requires putting up with some inconvenience. That’s not easy to do for a middle class that is sapped of all energy by the daily grind of living life in Delhi. But are we doing even the little bit that is possible?
There is little point in demanding the right to recall or that elected representatives be held accountable to us when we are not even willing to hold office-bearers of our resident welfare associations (RWAs) – who are far more accessible, since they are our neighbours – accountable. One can’t go lower than the RWA as far as building blocks of democracy are concerned. But attendance at general body meetings held once in three months (sometimes even less) to discuss the colony’s problems and how the RWA’s budget is to be spent is rarely more than 30 percent, across Delhi. As a result, most RWAs are dominated by a few groups, which run amok whenever they are in power, just like political parties and politicians do.
Given this attitude, what is the guarantee that people will actively participate in the mohalla samitis that the Aam Aadmi Party has promised to set up? The proposal involves dividing assembly constituencies into zones (based broadly on municipal wards) and holding regular town hall kind of meetings which all residents of that zone can attend and discuss how the budget for that zone should be spent. It could, as supporters claim, deepen democracy by involving people more closely in the governance process, something they are excluded from currently. Or it could lead to anarchy, as critics insist. But given the high levels of public indifference, will either of these assertions even get a chance of being tested?
Change is not something that can be outsourced to a Narendra Modi or an Arvind Kejriwal or whoever else represents change at a particular point in time. They can come up with solutions for the macro issues, but it is the people who have to ensure that those solutions make a difference at the micro level. The leaders and political parties can bring in steps to bring corrupt officials in line, but they can’t come to your locality to supervise how roads are being built or see if officials are harassing someone for a bribe.
The change that they represent and perhaps facilitate will come only when individuals shake off their ennui and put the systems they may set up to good use. When we refuse to pay a bribe even if it means harassment. When we follow up repeatedly on a faulty public works project. Are we ready for that? Or will we go about our lives as usual and then, at the end of five years, blame Modi or Kejriwal for failure to bring change and then look for some other messiah?
The record voter turnout in Delhi is a cause for celebration only if it is a tentative first step towards a more active citizenship and a more sustained engagement with governance systems, inconvenient as they may be. Only that will lead to sustainable change, set the foundation for an entirely different kind of politics lead to a deepening of democracy.

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