Hazare’s fast, it must be said, has generated some very lively debate about the pros and cons of extra-constitutional methods that politics in our country often takes. Quite a few people argue that the system is broken beyond repair and the only solution would be one that comes from outside the system itself. Some on the other hand raise questions about the direction this movement is taking, and justifiably so. This sort of direct action, while purportedly peaceful, often has some pretty ugly fall-outs which we’ve seen ever since Gandhi pioneered this form of politics in our country (and I hope to write more on the history of extra-constitutional methods in later posts).
A common complaint from the anti-Hazare camp though is that this method of process undermines representative democracy by giving powers to a person on the ludicrous basis of the his or her capacity to live on, or eventually die, without food. Here’s how Pratap Bhanu Mehta starts of his editorial in the Indian Express:
“Sometimes a sense of unbridled virtue can also subvert democracy. The agitation by civil society activists over the Jan Lokpal Bill is a reminder of this uncomfortable truth. There is a great deal of justified consternation over corruption. The obduracy of the political leadership is testing the patience of citizens. But the movement behind the Jan Lokpal Bill is crossing the lines of reasonableness. It is premised on an institutional imagination that is at best naïve; at worst subversive of representative democracy.”
Prima facie, the point is a cogent one. But the point assumes one given condition: that India is a representative democracy.
What is a representative democracy? Simply put, it’s one in which elected representatives represent the people, because direct democracy, i.e. actually involving the people directly in government is not feasible. It is,therefore, assumed that these elected represtatives will act as the voice of the people. Well and good, so far.
However, in India, our elected representatives cannot act as the voice of the people who voted them to power because of a nifty little provision called the Anti-Defection Law which effectively forces a representative to vote as per his party high command’s wishes.
So, for example, if we have a constituency which has a number of factories of X industry and at the moment Parliament is debating a bill which would slap heavy taxes on that industry, logically the constituency’s MP should do everything in his power to defeat the bill and naturally vote against it. That would be representative democracy in action. The MP acts as the voice of his constituency. But in India that is not how it happens. If it so happens that his party wants the bill to be passed, this MP, elected to represent his constituency, will have to actually stab his constituency in the back or risk disqualification.
In such a case one wonders how much sense it would actually make to call India a representative democracy. Maybe we'd need to invent a new term?
A related post: A Very Costly Bill