By Dr. Rao VBJ Chelikani –
In the context of the omnipotence of the political parties and frequent surfing of loyalties by elected representatives from one party to the other, elections are becoming a big ‘power mela’ where Instead of urging voters to exercise their rational faculties, candidates whip up mob fury and frenzy, tribal instincts, self-interest, emotional and sentimental attachment to personalities, and narrow caste loyalties. Every election is becoming a sterile repetition. In this context, the Civil Society organisations are trying to uphold the democratic vitality of the the electoral exercise through participative and watch-dog functions.
- Empowering Citizens
The civil society (CS) activists, primarily, address themselves to the residents in the country in order to empower them, by informing and supplying knowledge on various matters related to development as well as governance, though, probably not all functions at the same time. While educating the public and while sharpening their opinions, the activists become the voice of the people and share it with the public authorities or with the private sector operators. Sometimes, the wiser among the politicians in the Opposition, also try to join them to influence public opinion or the authorities in their favour.
i). An important aspect is that since the public opinion has a very short memory, the CS activists and organizations serve as memory banks and refresh the facts and figures of omissions and commissions of the authorities, at appropriate time or context.
ii). While contradicting each other, all the politicians, often, claim to represent, exclusively, the public opinion and also present facts and figures as it would suit them. The civil society activists alone would be able to comment upon their veracity and they are deemed credible.
iii). Finally, in sum and substance, the CS remind the people that all powers have never been handed over to the elected representatives (reps.) and that the ultimate objective of a democratic regime is to empower all those who are residing in a society. This way, they make the politicians aware of their own limitations in trying to represent the whole society and the whole man.
iv). The civil society activists cannot accord to themselves forever the privilege to watch over the representatives. They should facilitate that the citizens themselves and their various institutions participate in the governance. The vision of a self-rule is that those who govern should watch themselves in the form of self-critique.
“The civil society cannot accord to itself forever the privilege to watch over representatives. It should facilitate that the citizens themselves and their various institutions participate in governance towards a vision of self-rule wherein those who govern watch themselves in the form of self-critique.
- Dialogue with the Officials
All authoritarian governments and their bureaucracy do not see the existence of the NGOs very kindly, especially, in the domain of governance. Particularly, in the developing countries, the new generation of administrators looks at them as a challenge to their legitimacy, power and competence. This perception persists among them, in spite of the fact that their welfare state claims have failed to deliver the required goods and services.
i). Civil society dialogue with the officials is, qualitatively, different from that of their dialogue with the peoples’ reps. Young recruits into bureaucracy are not being, adequately, briefed about the existence of the CS, during their initial training. Usually, when they are posted in rural areas during their initial stint, the awe and respect that they command there would forge them into ‘powerful’ and imperious personalities. When they are posted in the urban areas, it would be a cultural shock to them to meet with CS activists, who are, very often, more aged, experienced, qualified, skilled and knowledgeable and who can voice their concerns with conviction and clarity, with a morally comfortable tone. However, it is, perhaps, regrettable that some activists take an impeaching attitude towards the officers. Such meetings create some psychological problems to the officers who become defensive or aggressive and resentful of entering into any dialogue, much less into any prior consultations. While this is particularly so with middle and lower level officers, very top officers, however, are sometimes willing to accommodate some views, without, however, acknowledging.
ii). The whole bureaucratic system tends to thwart all efforts by these activists to challenge or to prosecute or to take any disciplinary action against its fraternity. However, there is an increase in the number of ‘whistle-blowers’ in the Administration that are sympathising with the civil society activists. It is also a known fact that in India, we have insufficient and inefficient mechanisms of control of the ‘public servants’ in place. The political reps are very poorly equipped to ensure that the civil servants are there to serve the interests of each and every tax-paying resident and not to exercise power over them.
“The whole bureaucratic system tends to thwart all efforts by these activists to challenge or to prosecute or to take any disciplinary action against its fraternity. However, there is an increase in the number of ‘whistle-blowers’ in the Administration that are sympathising with the civil society activists.
iii). Even though, the civil society is assuming such a responsibility, we have to regret that, so far, in India, there are no structured and regular consultations between the departmental officials and the civil society or professional bodies. They are necessary and would be, mutually, productive and enriching. While bureaucracy would be able to improve its efficiency in performance, such a dialogue would help the activists to get rid of the negativism that they are subjected to due to lack of all aspects of an issue. Logically, it looks more probable that there could be more reasoned dialogue with the officials than with the political authorities.
- Sustaining the Democratic Vitality of the Elections
In the present context of the omnipotence of the political parties and frequent surfing of the loyalties by the elected representatives from one party to the other, we find that the elections are becoming a big ‘power mela’. Instead of urging the voters to exercise their rational faculties, the candidates are whipping up mob fury and frenzy, tribal instincts, self-interest, emotional and sentimental attachment to personalities, and narrow caste loyalties. Every election is becoming a sterile repetition. In this context, the CS organisations are trying to uphold the democratic vitality of the elections by exercising both participative and watch-dog functions.
i). Modus Operandi:
a). Some CS organisations sign memorandum of agreement with the Election Commission of India, whose members are, gradually, coming out of their scepticism about the CS. Preparation of electoral rolls which have been irremediably defective, is being assisted by the resident welfare associations (RWAs). During elections, the RWAs are hosting the polling booths, improving facilities for the staff and some of their office-bearers are being accepted as Booth Level Officers or as volunteers. NGOs have been pressing upon the political parties to give tickets only to ‘good’ candidates.
b). Before the elections, they set up help desks, sometimes in the collectors’ campus, so that the citizens can verify their names in the list; demonstrate a dummy electronic voting machine (EVM); provide to the public, the cell numbers of the election and expenditure observers and of police officials, so that the citizen can directly complain against any malpractice observed. Some District Electoral Officers offer vehicles to the ‘nigha’ activists, so that they can extensively tour the villages and towns and share their observations with the concerned officers. The Election Commission of India has a Model Code of Conduct for the candidates, their followers and to the parties in campaign. The civil society organizations widely distribute this Code of Conduct in local languages, so that whenever, the citizens notice any violations, they can, directly and immediately, complain to the concerned authorities.
c). They also collect the copies of affidavits filed by the candidates with the Returning Officers regarding their financial sources and criminal background. This information is widely circulated to the public in those constituencies so that the voters can know the background of the candidates. A Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms has been collecting the financial and criminal background of all the candidates who have ever contested in the Lok Sabha elections or in the state assembly elections and been diffusing their analysis of any changes or inconsistencies in their declarations. In addition, for all elections, the state level CS also directly collect the criminal background of all the candidates from the police stations. The Media is naturally very avid of such information.
d). At present, the candidate does not give any chance to the citizens to question them, when they barge into a house or a flat, surrounded by muscular henchmen. Therefore, the civil society organizations, such as, the resident welfare associations, senior citizens organizations and other CS concerned with governance, often, in cooperation with the media, organize common platforms for all the candidates, be it for a municipal ward or an assembly or a parliamentary seat, wherein, the candidates are asked to explain themselves. To avoid intimidation or false accusations, the CS moderator receives, preferably, written questions and puts them to the concerned candidate. Finally, the climax of these efforts lies in the activists going door to door to remind the residents to go and vote in the following morning, without fail.
e). When the reports of the District Electoral Officers reveal irregularities during the elections, or in-eligibilities are discovered from their affidavits or the election expenditure is not accounted for, the candidates are liable to be prosecuted and punished. Usually, this is not done by the Chief Electoral Officer of the state-cadre, unless the CS organisations put pressure on him. Occasionally, it is done, as in Telangana in 2018 for the elections held in 2014.