governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘direct democracy’

Politics sans service

The curious case of Uttarakhand (a small hill state in north India) shows that getting elected to political office confers powers but no responsibilities.

The otherwise placid, hilly paradise was rocked by frenzied politicking in end March, as Congress dissidents lit a fire under their own government, even as forest fires lit to clear shed pine leaves gusted up clouds of carbon and heat. Tellingly, citizens were more concerned with managing the forest fires than the fallout of the political shenanigans.

forest fire

Photo credit: disaster-report.com

The Harish Rawat-led Congress government still has one year to go. But it fell, because former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna and Mr Rawat’s ex-buddy from Garhwal, Harak Singh Rawat, and seven others pulled the plug on it. Their timing was cannily disruptive since the annual budget could not be approved — politically effective but irresponsible from a citizen’s viewpoint.

Triple political no-balls

What followed was a comedy of high-level bungling. The Speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, disqualified the dissident Congressmen the anti-defection legislation for voting against the government. But it is alleged that he did so only after the President of India had already put him and the state Legislative Assembly under suspended animation by dismissing the government.

Also, subsequent to the budget approval snafu, governor Krishan Kant Paul had already directed on March 18 that the state government prove its majority on the floor of the House on March 28. Why then did the President of India (read the Union government) scramble to dismiss the government on March 27, just a day before the vote of confidence?

The Congress approached the Nainital high court against the dismissal of their government. The honourable single-judge ordered on March 29, somewhat unusually, that the Congress test its numbers in the House on March 31 even though the Legislative Assembly had been suspended by the President of India. Expectedly, this order was stayed on appeal by a division bench of the court.

Politically motivated manipulation of constitutional powers is not new. But consider how low representative democracy has fallen and how remote politics has become from the people who chose to remain indifferent to the political machinations. It was not always like this.

activists

photo credit: tribuneindia.com

Leading up to November 2000, when the state was formed, the mood was upbeat and passions inflamed. The hilly areas of Garhwal and Kumaon had revolted against the allegedly quasi-colonial rule from Lucknow — the erstwhile city of nawabs, sheermal, galawati kebabs and the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Cut to 2016, and the dismissal of a duly elected government evokes no popular response at all beyond gossip at nukkad teashops. Apparently, the average citizen gets galvanised politically only when it is time to vote.

Dysfunctional inner-party governance

Consider also how dysfunctional our political parties are. A significant section — more than a quarter of the Congress MLAs — could not resolve their grievances through inner-party governance systems and chose to create a constitutional crisis to hit back at their party. They did not act out of high moral principles. Nor were there difference with the party around policy, legislation or programmes. Their rebellion was borne out of perceived insufficient recognition by the party of their merit, effort and political standing. Equally, it was irresponsible of the Congress, to ignore the growing dissidence, secure in the belief that the anti-defection legislation could contain dissidence and that there was still one more year before citizens could vote to call it to account.

Sadly, the five-yearly spells of public accountability do not protect citizens sufficiently from irresponsible governments. Can we do better?

Power to recall non performing MLAs

recall

photo credit: English.pradesh18.com

Being empowered to recall recalcitrant public representatives can make public representatives responsive to citizens. But Indian voters do not have this power, unlike in North America and Switzerland.

Technological improvements can help. Biometric identification can cheaply and correctly verify discontented voters who could digitally communicate their intent to recall, thereby triggering a re-election. The “Save the Net” campaign last year and subsequently supporters of Facebook/Internet.org, flooded Telecom Regulatory Authority of India with electronic messages. Voters could similarly message the Election Commission.

Devolve to dilute the zero-sum game of centralized politics

A second option to hold politicians to account is to devolve political office and powers closer to where voters live so that people can actively participate in overseeing an elected politician. The constitutional provisions have existed since 1992, but they have never been implemented in good faith and with full earnestness. Despite the rhetoric, there is little political appetite to let go of centralised powers in the Union and the state governments — both of which function remotely from people.

Our centralised, political ecosystem and architecture have created sticky political interests at the national and the state level.

Rarely does a village-level politician graduate to politics at the state level and even less so to the national level. The India-Bharat class divide exists even in politics.

True to their class ethic, state-level politicians perversely prefer to lose power to an opposing party, in the hope that it would come back to them one day, rather than see power trickle away permanently down to local levels. Consider that the consequence of a state government being dismissed is not the empowerment of local governments, to pick up the slack and fill the vacuum, but instead power is sucked back to Delhi where all state-level politicians aspire to work.

Would the Uttarakhand Congress dissidents have been as ready to rebel and trigger the dismissal of their government if the consequences were that elected leaders at the town and village levels would get vested with the executive powers of erstwhile state ministers and carry on working? Consider also whether the Union government would have been as willing a participant in the dismissal game, if the consequences meant executive powers being transferred lower rather than to the national level.

harish rawat

A chief minister under siege from his own party. photo credit: indianexpress.com

Petty palace politics and dodgy moves will continue to blight political stability and retard effective executive action, unless we rejig the institutional structure to generate political incentives. Citizens must be able to hold governments to account in real time.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age April 4, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/petty-palace-politics-570

Democracy’s Flabby Middle

Image

No, this is not about Modi’s expanding girth.

It’s about how archaic are our systems for “group think” on public affairs. It is not just about having to elect an MP, an MLA or a Councilor to represent us. “Group think” systems are institutionalized at various levels.  In business and industry we have the “federations and chambers” which presumably represent business and “trade unions” who represent labour; in politics we have political parties; in communities we have Civil Society Organisations who claim to represent specific interest groups and of course every religion has its own management hierarchy.

Most of us have neither the time nor the capacity to contribute full time to public affairs and hence the need for a set of intermediaries to manage interest groups in public affairs. The question really is do we have too many people doing too little for us? Are intermediaries distorting our messages? Are we victims of the “agency problem” where the representative becomes the boss of the owner?

Can direct democracy help? Yes it can. Direct democracy cuts out of the “noise” of middlemen by giving voice to citizens. Direct democracy can work, even in a continent sized, heterogeneous country like India, thanks to social media technology. In the world of IT the strategy for managing a social problem, like high crime rates, is developed by convening a “hackathon”. This is a gathering of concerned citizens, who define the problem; babus, who identify the administrative constraints and geeks, who create techie solutions like mapping crime spots on a street map to check if crime clusters around poorly lit streets or is time sensitive.

By defining the problem narrowly the solutions become simpler. The application “Ushahidi”, improves policing by crowd sourcing data to pinpoint violence (Kenya 2008) or enhances disaster management by identifying emergency hot spots (Haiti 2009).

Here are some options to cut the democratic flab:

  1. Why is it necessary for MPs and MLAs to attend Parliament/Assembly by being physically present? Why don’t they participate via video conferencing from their constituencies? Technologically, this presents no problems since most districts and blocks are now connected to broad band. Consider how this could solve the “agency problem”. MPs could not play hooky, as they do today, if she they were on camera. Imagine the sense of citizen participation, as MPs debate from their homes, whilst surrounded by their adoring and watchful constituents. This can cut the flab from Parliament by saving on travel cost and eliminate the time wasted in trooping into the well. Parliament would become as dry and efficient as a modern stock exchange, where people come to transact business not engage in theatrics. Also consider the number of productive jobs created across the country to expand the enabling IT eco-system.
  2. Many of the issues, which are debated in Parliament/Assemblies, can be better informed by mobile phone based surveys conducted by a third party. Currently, mobile ownership is at 70% of households (with rural HH lagging) but ownership is growing fast and should be encouraged for a variety of social purpose applications, including mobile money. What do Indians think about the need for a specific rape law? Should political parties come under the RTI? Should there be minimum academic qualifications for MPs? These matters are far too important, to rely on Rahul to intervene, on our behalf (as he did in the case of the criminal bachao ordinance) every time. In any case, we don’t want to “rely” on anything except our “group common sense” to guide babu actions via legislation
  3. Decisions are best taken closest to the people affected by them. This is the time tested management axiom of “subsidiarity”. This implies large scale decentralization of decision making powers and finance from the central and state government downwards to district and block level elected bodies, where 85% of the elected officials are located but who have less than 5% of the powers. Decisions become less complex and easier to implement as the extent of heterogeneity decreases. The options and trade-offs are easier to understand to take a rational decision. The level of citizen participation is always higher because the issues are more immediate and relevant. Decentralized decision making fosters “innovation” and creativity.  All these are good reasons for pushing decentralization without any enhanced fiduciary risk, which a technology enabled Public Financial Management system can ensure.

 The Right to Information Act was the first “breach in the Bastille” which improved “access to information”. The second barrier awaiting removal is the noise of flabby “agents/representatives”, via whom citizens are forced to voice their opinions in public debate. Technology can help us to reduce the transaction cost and enhance the prospects for direct participation.  Phone lagao, desh bachao.

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