India will be celebrating the Republic Day on the 26th of January. It was on this day in 1950 that we gave ourselves our Constitution and Republic. On the 25th of January, another day of significance will go by quietly. This day is irrevocably connected to our Republic Day and both are significant events symbolizing the vibrant nature of our democracy. Last year, the Government of India decided to celebrate this day as National Voters Day in order to make the voter feel proud of participating in the voting process. Democracy, as we all have been taught is the ‘will of the people’. The recent anti-corruption campaign that we saw in India was seen as an ‘expression of the will of the people’, but a few others saw it as an assault on the powers of the elected parliamentarians. This leaves us with the question of ‘what is the will of the people’. For this article, I would like to focus on the will of the people manifesting itself through the ballot box.
The present days when the citizens are getting increasingly engaged in civic issues could very well be the ‘now or never’ time to rescue Indian Democracy. Talking to people from different walks of life has led me to believe that they are now getting serious in this kind of engagement and they understand that it does not begin and end with elections. There is so much earnestness in people from all backgrounds in wanting to engage with the electoral process. People are keen to know how they can participate, what are the exact questions they need to ask the political class when they come to canvass, and what are the essentials to look for in the candidates that they should be voting for.
People also understand that one can no longer complain that money and caste equations decide ‘winnability’. This situation has arisen only because the voter has allowed it to be so. The common man is as much responsible for this state of affairs as the politician and the parties are. We now need to work together to redefine winnability. Performance and accountability need to be the yardsticks on which we decide on who represents us in our Legislature and Parliament.
The first step is to ensure that we are registered as voters. The next step is to study and analyze the list of people contesting for the elections at whatever level they are held. We need to make sure that we make our choice based on parameters other than money, inducements, caste and the party. We need to make our choice based on the competence of the person, the qualification, the skills he (or she) would bring to the office of being an elected representative, his financial and criminal records and his ability to engage with us – the common citizen of his constituency.
We also need to ensure that we do not relax after completing the voting formality. We need to keep track of our legislators and parliamentarians, their performance in the house, their knowledge and opinion on key issues and not reduce them to the role of merely helping us get transfers done or the potholes in our road repaired. We also need to continuously engage with them for their entire term and make sure that they are held accountable for their performance.
If we trace democracy back to its roots, we discover that neither its appearance nor its survival is inevitable. Voting helps safeguard our freedom and fundamental rights. A democratic community can only survive if its citizens see participation in the political process as a duty and a responsibility. Voting connects us to one another as citizens. By agreeing or disagreeing with our leaders through voting we show that the political system can accept differing points of view and can resolve them. By not voting, we break the connections between individual Indians and our community. Finally, voting connects citizens with our political process. It helps choose our leaders, determines the kind of government we will have, and ultimately the kind of country we will live in.
India is going through exciting and paradoxical times. On one side, we have so much and yet so little. We are seeing economic growth of nearly 8% over the last many years but still have 25% of the world’s burden of poverty. Nations who have made enormous social and economic progress have been able to do so only because they have had responsive and responsible governments. While we cannot wish away the role of the elected representatives in Governance today, we need to ensure that we hold them accountable to the performance that the situation demands. We need to engage with them on a continual basis and work with them in ushering in true participatory democracy where each one of us has a say in the development processes that affect us.
All this begins with the kind of people we chose to represent us. Mere complaining on what we get will not change the situation. We need to now involve ourselves constructively in understanding the people we will vote for, assess their capabilities, and give them a chance to explain their vision to us and interact and partner with them in making sure that they deliver on the promise of good governance.
Let each one of us take on our civic responsibility seriously and begin by making informed choices. Let us not forget that we will only get the leaders we deserve. We need to vote not because it is our fundamental right alone; we need to vote because it is the beginning of making India a vibrant and healthy democracy. Merely being the largest democracy is not enough anymore. We need to make Democracy every Indian’s business. For after all, we cannot let our country be led all the time. We should lead it by choosing the right leaders.