Equating Decentralization With Democracy

Published in The Hindu

There appear to be two underlying themes of Team Anna’s breakaway faction’s new party: the induction of good people and “people’s power” through consummate decentralization. The vision document sets out a quest for “swaraj”, which goes beyond mere freedom from colonial rule to “self-rule” – people’s right of self-determination. This ideal of self-determination has been conflated with direct democracy, and thus the vision document indicates that “as far as possible” decisions will be taken through gram/ward sabhas, referendums, and local primaries to decide electoral candidates for this new party.

No person who professes a commitment to democracy will argue against political decentralization. However to assume that decentralization is always synonymous with democracy is erroneous. Putting everything – local administrative decisions, legislations/policy, electoral candidates – to a vote can be majoritarian and hence counter-democratic. There are also legitimate question of capacity and practicality. These three main ideas as put forward by IAC require further thought:

People, not Party High Command, Nominating Candidates: IAC has suggested having local primaries to nominate candidates, apparently through an open primary since both party workers and local people will be eligible to vote[1]. This is an excellent idea however here too more thought is required. First, India does not have a system like the United States where primaries are conducted by the public administration. Therefore voters are not registered for a particular party (or as independents). Thus it will difficult to control “raiding” where party workers of a political party vote for a weak candidate of another party. Secondly, running a credible internal election machinery will require large scale resources and expertise, especially in an open primary and it is unclear if a fledgling party can do so in time for the elections in 2013/2014. A closed primary (only registered party workers may vote) may also pose problems of manipulation by local leaders, given that party organization is large parts of the country is rudimentary/non-existent. Perhaps a better idea at this stage would be to define principles through public consultations and give party tickets in a transparent manner based on these principles.

Referendums: The vision document states that “people must be consulted directly on key national decisions”. In line with the team’s earlier pronouncements, this appears to be through referendums. That the government must elicit public views on key issues in a democracy is a given; however what entails meaningful and practical consultation is unclear. Complex policy and legislative initiatives do not lend themselves to the sort of binary response a referendum will necessarily entail. Team Anna conducted a referendum in Chandni Chowk (Union Minister, Mr Kapil Sibal’s constituency) for the Lokpal Bill; however the questions consisted of issues where there was disagreement between the government and IAC, and the possible options for selection were only two: Government and Anna. If a referendum had to be done on the Lokpal Bill, how many questions would one need? A meaningful question would not be whether the Lokpal should be independent of the government or not – but how would this independence be ensured. This question alone will require going into the minutiae of the appointment committee, selection process, financial autonomy, administrative autonomy etc. And there will be tens of such questions. Furthermore referendums are susceptible to majoritarianism, such as the recent ban on minarets in Switzerland and Proposition 8 in California (2008), which amended the definition of “marriage” to exclude same sex couples. Having the public decide on personal economic policy is also not necessarily a good thing since voters may not be driven by the state’s fiscal health. Many people trace the Californian budget crisis to the 1978 referendum which severely decreased property taxes. Finally there are legitimate concerns that referendums instead of empowering the aam aadmi may instead be manipulated by organized and well-resourced special interests.

Local self-governance: The rhetoric of an “aam sabha” presumes a homogenous society with no internal conflict. However social hierarchy is imposed in villages by caste and by class in urban areas, which will impede (meaningful) participation. The consent of the gram sabha is invoked in issues such as displacement, where there is likely to be general consensus – however villages themselves can become the locus of marginalization when it comes to access to limited public goods. In urban areas, there is often conflict of interest between immigrants/unorganized sector and the middle-class. In addition the often uncertain legal status of the migrant class can stifle participation. Therefore mere devolution of powers and resources by itself may not lead to participation or egalitarian outcomes – and further thought is needed on the nature of supportive structures and social conditions needed for functional self-governance.

The purpose of a political party is to articulate a distinct vision for the future of the country, and then mobilize the electorate around that vision. For a vision to be credible, one must also define a plausible roadmap for its attainment. However IAC’s current pronouncements are a mish-mash of non-cohesive ideas and a preoccupation with procedural points. Decentralization as defined in their vision document is drawn in part from a worldview which seems to rest on an adversarial binary division between the state and the people, disregarding cross alliances and intra-group conflicts. This mode of decentralization does not necessarily increase democracy but appears to be motivated by a desire to curb the state. In any case, decentralization must be contextualized within an ideology if it’s not just to remain an operational goal. IAC has shown courage in entering electoral politics, in a landscape riven by primordial divisions, hijacked by money and muscle. Their entry has been disruptive in a system marked by complicit silence, and thus there is a great deal of energy and anticipation around their activities. However to harness this energy to capture not just an anti-incumbent sentiment but create a true political alternative will require real vision.


[1] Candidates for elections will be chosen not by the party leadership, but by the party workers at the local level, in an open convention, with participation of local people. The candidate thus will be chosen by the people.

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