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Not a wholesome view

Instead of unreliable surveys, let’s use technology to gauge what people want. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2011 21:38 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

In these uncertain times, when even gold and silver are looking doubtful, Anna Hazare has brought us the most-valuable element of all — the element of surprise. No one anticipated that the grandpa-next-door could become a lightning rod funnelling the frustrations of millions. And until this week, none of the players in the game had any idea what was going on.

Something impressive, clearly, but democracy is about numbers, not impressions. It’s about precisely how many people back and oppose a move, not how hard they push. We have an approximate idea of Hazare’s support base but the government, the media and the movement itself don’t know how many naysayers and fence-sitters are out there.

In the absence of that information, everyone was rudderless. The government and the Opposition were alternately sniping at each other as usual, pausing occasionally to fulminate about the threat to Parliament, their family estate. We mediawallahs were taken by the spontaneity of the movement and ignored the uneasiness of dissenters marginalised by region, religion or caste. Now we’re going the other way, accusing Hazare of being supremacist and fascist. And his mass base has no patience for the details, even those of their own Bill. They’re saying something very basic: “Oi! Do something! Now!”

Hazare agrees, but the parliamentary system requires protracted deliberation and bargaining. It does not offer immediate gratification. So Hazare wants to use the force of direct people’s democracy to overawe representative democracy, an unfair project. With 1.3 billion people, India is not the Athens of Socrates, where every citizen could be heard on every Bill. We surrender our right to be heard to representatives for five years at a time — long enough for them to change their tune. The disconnect between the ruler and the ruled can be bridged only by disruptive protest — big enough this time to take us by surprise.

There are excellent folk remedies for the element of surprise. Sovereign among them is the right to recall, by which legislators who do not perform as advertised can be unseated. It’s easier and kinder than toppling a government, but Hazare’s movement has put it on the backburner for now. Equally valuable is the practice of voters directly lobbying legislators, without political intervention. It’s catching on in India.

But folk remedies aren’t enough. Yesterday, Ram was above the courts. Today, the public is above Parliament. Tomorrow, a new extra-constitutional demand may arise. We can decide their validity only by the democratic principle of numbers, but no one ever keeps count.

Could Aadhar do the job? Its authentication network is designed to deliver services and welfare to the public. Could it also pipe opinion electronically the other way through public polls on Bills, with voter authentication? It would certainly be easier for interested parties to access an Aadhar device than to travel to Delhi for a show of strength.

The result would not be a true snapshot of the national mind, for it would exclude huge populations. But it would be truer than media surveys and the claims of activists and politicians. It could inform legislators about the public will which they are elected to execute. And perhaps eliminate the element of surprise from lawmaking.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

The views expressed by the author are personal