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Direct Democracy vs. Participatory Democracy

India is the stage nowadays of a wide political debate about participatory and representative democracy that has deserved headlines in The Telegraph, of Calcutta, and other major Indian newspapers, as well as televised debates at the Calcutta Club and Jantar Mantar regarding the campaign for the "Jan Lokpal bill", also known as the "citizens' ombudsman bill”, being promoted by the Anna Hazare's movement.

This bill ostensibly aims to deter corruption, redress citizens’ grievances and protect whistle-blowers with the intervention of a new independent ombudsman body, or Lokpal (a Sanskrit word meaning "protector of the people").  This is a high priority necessity in Indian daily political life and the proposed Lokpal, if approved, will be empowered to investigate complaints of corruption against politicians and bureaucrats outside of government officials influence.

Kisan Baburao Hazare, popularly known as Anna Hazare (photo), is a well-known political activist in India who succeeded in promoting this bill after an indefinite hunger strike in New Delhi attracting hundreds of thousands of supporters and provoking nation-wide protests.  Hazare has been an active leader against corruption since 1991 and Foreign Policy magazine named him this year among the top 100 global thinkers.  He allegedly follows the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent methods.  However, he has expressed authoritarian views on justice, including death penalties for corrupt public officials.

Hazare's anticorruption initiatives have finally focused attention on India's political structure by criticizing representative democracy as a second-best alternative to direct, participatory democracy.  He argues that democracy in India is no longer of the People, by the People, for the People, but a tool in the hands of those in power.  Once and again, Hazare has expressed his conviction that in both India and the United States, two large and mature democracies, the institutions of representative democracy sometimes limit people's participation in the affairs of government and politicians need significant amounts of money to run an election campaign, resulting in candidates belonging to a power elite.  One outcome -he argues- is a serious imbalance between the relative abilities of ordinary citizens and special interests to influence policy making and governance.

It is not clear if this movement is confusing direct democracy with participatory democracy.  Direct democracy gets rid of proper representation for major decisions in public life, while participatory democracy is an evolutionary goal of representative democracy for higher and more effective citizen's participation in government decisions.  Participation may have many different aspects.  Paramount among them is revoking elections, but the power to reject candidates in an election would also be important.  Hazare's proposal about this polling system is quite interesting.  He argues that if voters had a right to reject ALL candidates on the ballot and if the rejection votes outnumber the votes received by candidates, the election ought to be annulled and a new one conducted.  In addition, all the rejected candidates ought to be barred from contesting again in that particular election.

Deepak Lai, a James S. Coleman Professor of International Development Studies, University of California Los Angeles, and author of several books on India's economy and politics, is among Hazare's most prominent Indian intellectual critics.  Deepak Lai criticism focuses on the activities of India's NGOs inspired by Hazare's initiatives and supporting his movement.  Let us take a look at his arguments:

"The claim of various NGO activists (both local and international) is that they represent «civil society» and hence the legislators must enforce their will.  But this claim is patently false.  The chief characteristic of a State is its monopoly of coercive power.  In democracies, this power is granted to governments responsible to the electorate.  Only elected governments can be responsible for making domestic or international laws.  To grant any private interests a direct voice in how coercion is to be applied subverts constitutional democracy.  If the claims of these activists that they represent «civil society» were true, the proponents of their ideas would be in power in national politics.

The underlying theory behind these NGOs’ claims, and the source of their popular appeal, is the wholly illiberal theory of participatory democracy.  The Western notion of liberal democracy, which the founders of India’s Constitution embraced, is based on representative democracy.  From the Founding Fathers of the American Republic to liberal thinkers like Immanuel Kant, direct or participatory democracy on the model of the Greek city-states has been held to be deeply illiberal.  Subject to populist pressures and the changing passions of the majority, it can oppress minorities."

We might say that he is right if it were not for the fact that Lai (as well as Hazare) confuses direct with participatory democracy, as if a high degree of participation in modern democracies had to be modeled on the Greek city-states.  Lai is not aware that he makes the distinction by his own reasoning later on the same article, published in the Indian magazine "Business Standard" on December 18th.  Notably, he goes on to say that "Greater popular participation does not necessarily subvert liberty." And we have to emphasize that greater popular participation in decision-making is precisely what turns a mere representative democracy into a participatory democracy. Real participatory democracy is a political system in which there are representatives, but they are bound to make decisions strictly following the mandate of the people. Citizens can vote on the important issues and override the politicians, among other options.

This gradual evolution from a strictly representative democracy to a participatory democracy is quite evident in recent UK, US and European political history.  Plebiscites, referenda, focus groups, political action groups as well as popular participation on debates and procedures at a municipal level show how far this transformation has reached.  On the electoral system, revoking elections are taking place as a result of citizen's initiatives, and serve as a warning to politicians tempted to deviate from their mandate.

But an increased and effective popular participation does not mean that elected legislators are no longer needed.  In fact, they are elected to take decisions based on experience, knowledge and negotiation.  Popular participation should thus be limited to monitoring their performance, revoking their mandate, punishing their corruption, and/or overriding their worse decisions.  The ombudsman role as "protector of the people" is a needed tool for this kind of popular participation to be more effective.

On the other hand, it is a mistake to apply indiscriminately direct democracy measures to every day political life.  It is too expensive to call citizens to the ballot box for every administrative decision that government must take; such as it is happening too often in the United States.  It is also too dangerous because a direct democracy majority rule disregards negotiation and may trample on the rights of minorities (See "The Rule of Law" among our Basic Documents).  Furthermore, most citizens lack enough knowledge and expertise to make informed decisions on complicated financial or administrative matters.  On the other hand, a participatory democracy system allows citizens to be better informed and gives them the power to take initiatives that may turn into law or may stop in their tracks corrupt or incompetent officials before they are able to do too much damage.