Politics, Writing

The Politics of Representation

One of the recurring themes in the debates that have surrounded the Anna Hazare led movement against corruption is the supremacy of the Parliament by virtue of its being the only genuine representative of the aspirations of the people of the country. This is a powerful argument, for in a country as large as India, the danger of letting individual groups arrogate to themselves the right to speak for the country is a particularly real one. The danger of conflating the issues facing a particular constituency with those of the nation at large, and using strong-arm tactics to put these issues at the top of the national agenda can seriously distort the country’s priorities. In a nation where the ability to be heard is skewed so sharply towards the elite, it is easy for this to happen, and without genuine representativeness, the risks on this score can be very high.

It is also true that the biggest success of democracy in India has been its representative character. In the post-Mandal world, this ability has grown very significantly, and elections today do genuinely throw up leaders that come from all strata of society, with the hitherto backward classes coming into their political own. The power of the traditional elites has been blunted, and movements like the anti-corruption crusade are in part a reaction of this loss of pre-eminence. The sense of being politically diminished, and electorally insignificant, has given an edge to the fulminations of the middle class, and has spilled over into the streets in a manner that is unprecedented. The middle class feels unrepresented, and thus is increasingly losing faith in the political system as a whole. The anti-corruption flag hides, not too successfully, a larger contempt for politics and politicians, and yearns for solutions that lie outside the fabric of the polity.

It is worth asking if democracy in India is truly representative. The only yardstick for representativeness cannot be that people of all classes find themselves in power. It cannot only be about who gets elected and how representative they are of the entire population, but must necessarily be about how they represent their constituencies and what actions do they take on behalf of their constituents. It is striking that during the entire anti-corruption movement, the protestors did not once turn to their representatives, nor did the legislators in question, MPS & MLAS from the larger cities, feel remotely obliged to speak for their constituents. It is as if both parties instinctively understood that their elected representatives had no role to play. The role of the legislators is to act the part, to don the trappings of power, to grace billboards that greet us on festivals, and to agitate for lal battis on their cars. The one-to-ne correspondence between a local representative and his or her constituent does not exist in a meaningful sense.

That is not to say that the legislators have no interest at all in the electorate, but the form in which it manifests itself most commonly is by acts of patronage. Elected representatives seek to build an electoral base, bloc of some kind that can be persuaded to vote for them en masse in exchange of acts of subsidy or preference or in the name of identity. The other acts of representation involve selectively helping some constituents ‘get their wok done’- findings ways of working through and around the local bureaucracy, often greased by some reciprocal consideration. The idea of direct representation, of actually standing for a cause held dear by the constituents and working towards institutional action in its support is much rarer to come across.

In a larger sense, the indiscriminate use of party whips means hat individual representatives have little room to express themselves legislatively, and this severely compromises their ability to pick up specific issues and stand up for them. The devaluation of the individual legislator, who is often treated as being part of a nameless herd, and needs constant shepherding, goading, instruction and protection, restricts his or her role quite dramatically, and compromises the ability to genuinely represent the voter. Over a period of time, the system has adjusted in a way that for most elected representatives, this is not really experienced as a problem at all and is accepted as a matter of fact.

What has made the Anna Hazare movement so significant, despite all its shortcomings, is the fact it focuses attention on concrete legislative action. It is seeking not a grant or subsidy, but a mechanism that provides an incentive for the system to work as intended. the current political system has become a self-perpetuating and self-contained system, which has become increasingly impenetrable to outside intervention. The existing pillars of democracy too have been co-opted to a significant degree, including the bureaucracy, media and even the elements of the lower judiciary. It is difficult to find impetus for change to come from within, since the system has evolved around a distorted intent- that of coming and staying in power rather than providing governance. The successful separation of governance and electability has ensured that politicians do not need to perform acts of representation in order to get elected. The argument that Parliament, by virtue of its representative character is already playing the role that the Lok Pal bill suggests it play, does not stand up to scrutiny, given the nature of the representation being provided so far.

It was important for our democracy to have become more representative in character. It is now time for it convert the idea of representativeness into a more active ideal, one in which the political system feels pressure to perform; a causal link between performance and electability needs to be etched out in stronger terms. Measures like the Lok Pal bill are never going to be solutions by themselves; if the system does not change in a fundamental way, this mechanism too is likely to get co-opted. The onus is on the voters to send clearer messages. Only then can we hope for change that is sustainable.

Democratic World  – 31 December 2011