Propelling Political Change

May 21, 2010

The basic tenet of a judicious society is the social and economic assimilation of all people. Every individual has a legitimate right to participate because each individual’s sheer being is a driver for the country and its economy. The State derives its strength in part from the size of the population; corporations lower their production costs due to artificially depressed wages because of this number; and derive their sales directly/indirectly from the size of the population. If the collective is important as a constituency for the State and Big Business, then each individual of that collective has a direct cascading reciprocal right of participation in the economy and not merely the right to welfare handout like hush money.

Social assimilation is a slow complex process, and while some forms of assimilation can be legislated, universal enforcement is impossible both practically and without impinging on people’s democratic rights. However where social exclusion is a way to limit access to common resources, economic assimilation will eventually lead to the former. Therefore to the extent that commercialization, centralization and efficiency will exclude people from their legitimate right to participate in the country’s economy (the real right to work), these activities must be controlled and regulated. Minimally, this means that the rural populace cannot be sidelined by design (e.g., by de-prioritizing agriculture, privatized industrialization, indiscriminate sops to skilled service industries, and a service sector oriented education designed to lead to mass unemployment) and that migration will necessarily have to be facilitated by a more compassionate policy at both state and central level. Then safety nets (e.g., right to food) though necessary will be required only for those people who slip through the cracks, not for over half the population.

Assuming consensus on the above (mass public good over narrow elite interest), the question is what is the best way to effect this change, both of state accountability and ideological direction? There are three sets of determinants: change from within or without; use of violence or not; and a top-down or bottom-up modus operandi. Violence as a strategy is neither safely scalable (corruption will lead to irreversible damage) nor sustainable since unless the opposition is completely annihilated, the retention of any gains will require continued application of violence. Hence we are left with three choices: electoral politics; people’s mobilization (bottoms-up); and institutionalized watchdogs/lobbyists.  

The RTI Act is seminal in improving state accountability. However, the RTI movement (disregarding the vigilante RTI activist) as it stands now is trying to improve governance through upstream accountability by pointing out defalcation in the implementation of government schemes. There are two problems with this: first, exposing corruption will not lead to systemic change or even limited reparation without a corresponding mechanism to force correction (hence the need for people’s mobilization). Mostly, the consequences if any are limited to the immediate government official(s).  Second, people’s mobilization is essentially a mediated and hence localized phenomenon.

People’s mobilization as a strategy suffers from a few additional limitations: people coalesce around a single grievance; macro understanding of the interrelated issues is low. Consequently the participating individual cannot ordinarily harness the strength of the movement for other issues, and the benefit of participation is limited to a binary outcome of grievance resolved or not. Also, due to paucity of options, sometimes participation is as much a source of employment as ideological affinity.  Inevitably then, the strength of the movement becomes centralized in individuals, who become alternate centers of power to the State. Dharnas, rallies, or Gandhi’s civil disobedience etc are in some ways a display of the leader’s popular strength (with electoral consequences), and is as much for the benefit of the Administration as it is an attempt to engage the masses. If this were not true, then the independence movement would have resulted in greater participation and equity, not just mere reverence for a few freedom fighters. African Americans would have abolished not just slavery and segregation, but would have also made greater inroads into American society and politics (despite the continuing effects of historical oppression). Moreover, if enough people were truly politicized, then all forms of governance would eventually move towards democracy, which is clearly not the case.

To me this means three things: first, people’s mobilization as a strategy is inadequate for improvement in delivery of basic government services (last mile state accountability), and that some form of centralized reform is imperative for universal coverage; second, people’s movements should seek to impact ideological direction; and third, long-term transformational improvements are possible only through electoral politics.

Each government service is essentially a single transaction repeated, as many times as there are beneficiaries. For a non-politicized individual (whose goal is delivery of service and not political reform), there is incentive to stop at the lowest level of success – himself, village, panchayat, block, district etc. Moreover, success in one geographical area will not automatically catalyze success in another untouched silo. Therefore in areas where universal coverage is imperative (e.g., food security, education, health services), reform must be top-down, with focus on the process (and associated bureaucracy) and less on people’s mobilization (typically post-fact reparative and not reformative). Processes must be completely transparent and should accommodate beneficiary participation, but should not rely on universal participation. Moreover, people’s participation too should be simplified as much as meaningfully possible, especially where participation can be enlisted to police deviations (deviation exists as a binary choice). For instance, in the Chhattisgarh PDS reform, the entire process was made transparent and then at the last step, 6-7 people (of which most were position specific, e.g., sarpanch etc) were identified per FPS to monitor truck arrival and delivery of grain based on SMS alerts. None of this precludes greater participation; however, participation should be commensurate with interest and understanding.

Second, people should be mobilized around ideological issues. Given that political power is so concentrated, grassroots organization is the only way to level odds when the sought for change favors the masses over concentrated economic interest.  People’s movements are ideal where the purpose is to force one-off changes such as policy, legislation. Here, people’s mobilization in one area will have an impact on the larger area since the action is centralized. Also personal credibility built by people’s mobilization (and hence understanding of and empathy with grassroots issues) is critical here. Moreover broad-based politicization essential for a functional democracy has to have an ideological construct.

Assuming that centralization of power is inevitable, isn’t centralization in an institution preferable to centralization in an individual<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]-->? And if we do in fact prefer institutionalized processes, then primary participation is preferable to external institutions, which when they become influential enough usually become state proxies without the same level of accountability. The automatic preference for people’s movements versus electoral politics is because the former are led by some of the most charismatic and credible people, and the latter by the most obviously corrupt and callous. However, every single popular movement aims either to improve state accountability to stated positions or to impact policy (allocation of resources, prioritizing interest of one constituency over another etc). If the aim of each movement is to affect state behavior, then how can the long-term view not be to take ownership of political functioning of the country. India gets away with its pretense and pomp of the world’s largest democracy because of its consistent record of holding elections. The act of voting in India has been simplified to a binary choice – my party/candidate/symbol versus the rest. Given that all people’s movements essentially run on the personal credibility and charisma of some people, there is a parallel with the votebanks of established political leaders. So why don't popular movements form a national party, collaborating around a common manifesto of basic adherence to transparency and ideological affiliation (common public good, and not the interests of a few). There is of course the risk of partial victory, of inability to impact any real change while losing credibility, in actuality due to corruption or perceived due to association.

None of these options satisfy; none is a sure shot way to a more egalitarian social order. Yet what other alternative is there? The legitimacy of a democratic government is contingent on the continued faith of its constituents in its functioning. But when the government fails us, we can’t legitimately short-circuit change by undermining democracy itself.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> The trade unionizing of NREGA workers in some ways is similar to centralized institutionalization. NREGA workers will enroll in a trade union at a minimal fee; the union will then fight for the rights of its members. The trade union structure will allow for organized lobbying and dissemination of information.

Ruchi blogs (infrequently) at http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com/ and can be reached at gupta.ruchi@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter @ http://twitter.com/guptar
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