By Annie Zaidi
Of the people, by the people, and for the people -- it’s the simplest, cleanest, easiest-to-remember definition of democracy.
These days, I often think back to my school civics book. On the first page was printed the preamble to the Constitution. I have to confess here that I often feel guilty for not having read the full text of the Constitution yet. Some day, I tell myself, I will. But for now, the Preamble alone suffices. The very first line reminds us of what we set out to be as a nation:
“We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN, SOCIALIST, SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC…”
And so it goes on to justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and our other rights and freedoms. But here’s the key thing: we the people. We gave unto ourselves these rights. We gave ourselves out own sovereignty and our democracy.
I wonder sometimes if, in our everyday political discourse, we have not forgotten that democracy is not a gift that anyone bestows upon us. It is not a handout. It is of our own making, and if it to survive, then it must be re-made, re-constituted every single day by as many of us as possible.
One of the ways in which we renew a democracy is to engage with it. Not just about political events or elections. Democracy is much bigger than one election, or even 29 + 7 elections.
Democracy is a cultivated habit of thinking and choosing. Choice is also not just a question of choosing the better party or the best candidate. It is also about choosing the best systems, and allowing ourselves to seek modifications in the electoral system when it serves our Constitutional ideals better.
India is known as the world's largest Democracy. This is on the basis of the sheer number of people who participate in the elections. We are also a nation of people that love discussing elections and politics. Yet, we have very little discussion about whether the core democratic principle – of the people, by the people, for the people – has been upheld. For instance, if our elected representatives push through decisions that are actually opposed by the majority of the population, or if the core values of equality and social justice are threatened by certain decisions, what can citizens do?
The response is: wait five years and punish the politicians. One of the major definitions of a democracy is that citizens are able to change their government? But what happens if the next lot also does the same thing? Or, what happens when the same people return to power via new alignments?
Also, how exactly does the democratic edifice hold itself up? Elections give us a Parliament, the state assemblies, the panchayats and municipal corporations. But the average citizen does not experience Parliament directly. How does democracy filter down the average citizen?
These are questions that any committed democracy must engage with and with that hope, I had gone to Deepalaya with some notes on Democracy/Loktantra. Organised by the Community Library Project, the discussion was open to men and women, boys and girls above 18. Those who joined the discussion included teenagers, mothers, a grandmom, activists and library volunteers.
One of the areas of shadow in most political conversations is global suffrage history. I felt quite strongly that we cannot fully grasp our system, its strengths and weaknesses, unless we look at how other people have enacted their own versions of democracy and what it leads to. So we travelled the distance from ancient Greece and Rome to England to India and Australia.
We had very little time (just about an hour), but we talked about half a dozen key aspects of democratic systems – limited forms of suffrage/disenfranchisement, party funding, preferential voting, protest votes, distance/postal votes, and the role of the media as the fourth pillar of democracy.
It was an invigorating hour, edged with questions that spilled over into tea. I am hoping those conversations are spilling out further, out of the library and into the suburb, and out into the city, and further, and further.
[Annie Zaidi is a writer from India. Her collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry (Crush, 2007), short-stories (The Good Indian Girl, 2011), plays and has published a novella.]