A series of state elections are declared, with a general election to follow. Democracy conjures up visions of masses of people waiting at the hem of a system. The ruling class, often views this mass of people with fear. Elections are accepted as a necessary evil, a popular mandate, a manifestation of uninformed choices.
The argument that the vote is an establishment of a personal hegemony, of caste, myopic self interest masquerading as democracy, can also be turned against people like us, who have had privileged access to systems that should enable making informed choices. The truth is that we are all uniformly victims of one or the other paradigm. If the poor are denied access to decision making; the other half is blinded by self-interest not to see the writing on the wall.
The stakes today are high, with profit vying for legitimacy with true democratic practice with the survival of the earth itself. Common sense politics, based on survival of the ordinary person has not been adequately acknowledged. People’s struggles have resulted in creative policies and decisions, and in legislations ensuring minimum needs. Our Constitution is the result of the largest people’s movement modern India has seen.
The singular power of the vote to determine the texture of government has been invaluable, but equally limited. Ordinary people understand now that this power to question continues to exist between elections. People have pushed legislation and policy to protect their democratic rights, just as much as economic necessities. The Right to Information law was defined initially by the rural poor as was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
People understand the need for tools to demand transparency and accountability, to sift the chaff from the wheat of seemingly impregnable (and now fragile) economic arguments, track expenditure and guarantee their daily bread, unravel the roots of the violence and insecurity issues engulfing us all.
Gandhiji’s talisman for evaluating policy through the prism of benefit to the last person (man), now needs to be redefined to ask -- did they decide? A democracy can only prosper if there are legitimate platforms where citizens can be heard. The challenges of exclusive agendas should be challenged by an inclusive form of democracy that guarantees every person a share in governance. In jargon we call this participatory decision-making.
In terms of structures, there are Panchayats and local Municipalities, but have done little to truly empower themselves or the people. Simultaneously, the privileged seek their future in multinational companies and talk of corporate governance. Those who cannot, become civil servants whose destination may be the World Bank, IMF, or ADB. Politics has become synonymous with the dirty side of “local” governance. Yet we talk of the democratic power of the people. Genuine people’s empowerment is to call the bluff of these warped priorities.
This is the result of clear perceptions that come when all the cards are down, with no luxury of pretensions! Sushila’s statement in the Press Conference in 1996, when asked why she, barely literate, wanted the RTI law, cut through all ambiguities, when she answered: "When I send my son to the market with ten rupees, I ask for accounts when he returns. This government spends billions of rupees in our name; we want the accounts -- Hamara paisa, Hamara hisab.” A slogan that empowered us to struggle on, and continues to push us even today, as we struggle to get the RTI and the NREGA implemented by a system used to, and replete with spoils!!
It is not just about poverty alleviation that the poor have an opinion that must be heard. In the kind of democratic choices: of big dams, SEZs, militarization, nuclear power, restraining democratic dissent, dealing with terror -- people have raised concerns about environmental damage and our collective political future, not just about economic or political displacement and pauperization. The unrestrained capitalist exploitation of nature, is bringing closer imminent, dangerous climate change; more threatening than a global Tsunami. Nature, unlike the poor cannot be quelled.
Today, our insecurities threaten our existence. The voices of common sense are arbitrarily dismissed as anti-development. Given space and respect, they may offer some solutions. Hope lies in solutions based on common sense politics, and concerns about a shared world.