Sunday, July 05, 2015

High time for direct democracy?

When I came across the idea and mechanism of democracy as a child, i naturally asked why there are representatives voting on our behalf for making laws. As a child, I thought it rather indirect and cumbersome to elect a representative who supposedly would represent your wish in the process of law-making. (just to be clear, i was not a visionary child for having asked this because firstly i was old enough - maybe 12 - and secondly many of my friends also asked similar things then)
As I grew older and learnt more about parliamentary democracy i realized that it is probably the only workable system owing to the large population of the country and the rather complicated business of making laws. I was also a bit confused about the executive branch and the legislative branch because the Indian system has these overlapping - the party in majority in Lok Sabha anyway forms the government often drawing the ministers from the Lok Sabha (sometimes Rajya Sabha) MPs. As I learnt more about the US system with its very clear demarcation between the congress/senate and the cabinet (or whatever they call the group of the president and his men/women as various secretaries), I realized that the executive function is clearly a 'job' - with specific skill requirement and specific tasks to be carried out from morning to evening every day. On the other hand the legislative function is not a matter of skills (in the conventional sense of the term) but of knowing and representing the wishes of a certain section of population (in most democracies, this is geographically divided.) Also, the legislative function is not a job but more so a membership of a conference of sorts which takes place a few times a year in the parliament.

There were, till recently, sound reasons why we had to stick to a system of representatives being elected for the latter i.e. legislative function. Switzerland has demonstrated that direct democracy can work - but it's an example often ignored because of the small size and relative opulence of Swiss population - not to mention their neutrality in international conflicts - which makes the legislation far less cumbersome than say India's or Malaysia's.
However, has the time come to revisit this system of representative democracy? Does our communications and identification technology at present not allow us to set up a system of voting on all important laws directly? And I mean that question for the country of the size of India - along with the limitations of partial illiteracy, imperfect connectivity and a part of population still below poverty line, While it may sound audacious, it is easy to see that the implementation does not require any technology that is not already in existence and widespread. Aadhar cards with mobile phones and a suitable app with advanced security features can enable Indian citizens to vote on everything directly.
Think of the advances in democracy! Besides the obvious benefit of getting a say in matters of national importance, there is another huge potential benefit - slicing the population eligible to vote by non-geographical criteria as well as criteria different from the static geographical cuts of today. If there is a road to be built between two cities, the populations of these two cities and the towns in between should vote on it, with far off towns having no say in the matter. Likewise if a law affects only farmers, why should a equity analyst vote on it? On tightening or loosening a security law, maybe the whole country can vote.

The doubters would say the laypersons do not always know the nuances of the law being made and they may vote with their prejudices and biases. This is a fallacious argument. I don't think most individuals (across countries, but more so in India) have very high regards for the intellectual capabilities of their representatives (for example, I personally do not know anything about the person i voted for in the previous lok sabha elections and i voted just because he was of a certain party). Secondly, even intelligent representatives (no, not shashi tharoor, there are many others!) do not necessarily get to vote as they truly wish. In US there is even a position of a 'majority whip'! In India 'high command' tells the representatives to vote one way or other. I have not heard of any noteworthy examples of MPs of any party voting against the party high command's wish and staying in the party long after that! So the next question is - do party high commands know better than the citizens what is good for the latter? More importantly, are they likely to use the criterion of 'better for citizens' as the driver of their voting decisions? If the answers to these are unclear, why not let citizens directly vote with their biases and prejudices?
There is a more constructive answer to this question though. While there may be no elected representatives making laws in such a system, there is clearly a place for formally elected 'proposers' for proposing various laws and clarifying their benefits (as well as problems with laws proposed by other 'proposers'). Some proposers then go about creating proposals and championing them while others oppose them. People hear the arguments on both sides and vote with the accumulated knowledge from these as well as their prejudices and biases. There is room to educate and debate!
(Just to be clear, the MPs are replaced by 'proposers'. There is still the need for the executive i.e. a prime-minister and the cabinet, which in effect will be elected as per the presidential system in US.)

I do believe the system is up for overhaul - especially considering its many perversions in recent decades, across many countries - developed and developing. Instead of seeing the political choices of our times in two poles of democracy and totalitarian regimes, we are better off pushing the democratic pole further into direct democracy!