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Beyond Electoral Politics: Need for Democratic Renewal

Constituent AssemblyBy Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, February 2, 2007

Democratic renewal has yet to be broached by any political party in the current elections, yet it is perhaps the only thing that can bring the whole exercise to a satisfactory conclusion.

As a keen observer of the current state elections, analysing the current explosion of previously unheard of political groupings has been a bewildering experience. It seems that the political fragmentation and collapse of the party systems has been particularly acute this time around, with a record breaking number of office seekers and a rising tide of rebels, dissidents, factions, and splits threatening to throw any campaign strategy out the window.

However, through it all, there has remained a nagging feeling that this “carnivale of democracy” will not lead to much, with a cacophony of voices and special interests drowning each other out. Although serious issues are being raised in some quarters, the crash of clashing egos amongst both netas and chelas may eclipse all other considerations. And while alternatives are being desperately sought, state failure may actually only worsen with knee jerk anti-incumbency replacing one band of brigands with another.

It is clear that politics as usual are going to continue to drive voters away in droves, and discourage those most worthy of public service. Yet there is also something more fundamental at work here, which no party under the current system with the same electoral imperatives can solve. Perhaps we need to look at the state of democracy itself.

As such, I would suggest that the time has come for serious constitutional reform, especially at the state level. Strangely, India’s parliamentary arrangements have remained stagnant for more than 50 years, with barely any changes to the electoral system India inherited from Great Britain. Moreover, when such reforms have been suggested, cynics have usually claimed that it could not be done or would unravel the fabric of the nation. This is true insofar as having to rely on political parties to enact far reaching political reforms that would undermine their power monopoly. That the women’s reservation bill has been stalled for years is one such glaring example of this political paralysis.

Yet, one has only to look at the constitutional innovation happening in countries and provinces all over the world to realize that the basis of parliamentary democracy is not set in stone. Constitutions are meant to be amended just as constituent assemblies are meant to be invoked whenever a democratic renewal or state relegitimisation process is needed. Indeed, ten years ago, a new constituent assembly to draw up Uttarakhand’s state constitution was one suggestion that could have made a huge difference in the new state’s formation, where a mass democratic exercise in co-creation would have engaged all sections of society rather than just the political elites. Sadly, this opportunity was missed as Uttaranchal was born a carbon copy of Uttar Pradesh.

This failure of imagination is more cutting when we compare Uttarakhand’s experiences with its contemporaries. In a banner year for state reorganization, Scotland and Wales achieved a measure of home rule in 1999, while Nunavut became Canada’s third territory and thirteenth regional jurisdiction.

In the case of Great Britain both “devolutions” made history, with Scotland regaining its parliament after three centuries of direct rule from Westminster, and the Welsh National Assembly achieving in 2003 what no other in the world had achieved, namely parity in the number of male and female elected representatives. Moreover the Welsh electoral system supplemented its 40 normal constituencies with 20 more “top-up” seats for regional balance, akin to the attempt by the Election Commission of India to balance geographical area and population in the Uttarakhand 2001 state delimitation. Any new round of delimitation can look to the Welsh model as a way around the state’s population polarization that will eventually concentrate seats in the plains districts.

Nunavut, a territory almost two-thirds the size of India with only 30,000 people, blazed an even more unconventional path. Nunavut dispensed with the political party system, with individual members of the nineteen-strong legislative assembly representing their communities directly. This was made somewhat possible as the population of Nunavut is miniscule, however, it does point to some intriguing possibilities around taking the sting of excessive partisanship out of politics. Moreover, the legislature functions on a consensus basis, an unheard of option in the majoritarianism that can make parliamentary systems in the British mould so unrepresentative and undemocratic.

In Nunavut too, there has been an emphasis on changing English place names back to their Inuktitut predecessors, whereas the capital of Iqaluit was changed from Frobisher Bay, used by the Canadian and American air forces, back to its traditional name in 1987. In 2001, Iqaluit was itself selected as capital of Nunavut through a referendum, a viable option for determining the permanent capital of Uttarakhand.

Unfortunately, Uttarakhand can also commiserate with Nunavut in the disappointments of their new regimes. As noted by Jackie Price, a young Inuk political scientist:

“The creation of Nunavut was an internationally recognized event. Not only were people celebrating the new boundary on the Canadian map; oddly enough, people were celebrating the establishment of more government. People figured that a newly established government would increase Inuit access to government, which would increase the likelihood that government would learn from Inuit culture. People thought government would be different in Nunavut, and this got people excited.”

Sound familiar? However, seven years later, the dreams of a bright new future for the Inuit have dimmed considerably. Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail recently noted that Nunavut’s “optimistic fresh start has gone unrealized” especially as social ills such as violent crime and suicide have increased rather than declined since the new territory’s creation (January 13, 2007). There, like Uttarakhand, a change in power and control had not led to a new way of governing for the benefit of all. Rather, the historic lands claim agreement only shifted the site of power rather than democratizing it and redefining its terms in a more culturally appropriate manner.

In a hopeful note, the 2004 territorial elections led to the foundation of an eleven-member body of elders to assist the government in incorporating Inuit culture and traditional knowledge into territorial administration and decision-making process. Would not such a council be appropriate to Uttarakhand? We can even select such individuals from a ready pool of our Padma Shri winners, many of whom should have been elected to high office a long time ago. All we have to do is imagine such possibilities and aim to implement them, rather than throw up our hands in despair at the state of democracy. By doing so, we can realize our full potential as citizens and unleash our constructive energies, rather the destructive dissolute forces now at work in politics.