Why do we behave subserviently to our elected representatives, and why do they behave like they lord over us?

India is a reluctant republic but its time we took ownership of our governanceCourtesy: PTI
Voices Opinion Monday, November 13, 2017 - 16:31

“We hope and trust that ward committees will engage themselves seriously in the task assigned to them under the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1976,” a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court said on November 10 2017.

This is a significant ruling on decentralised governance, citizen populated ward committees and in-ward solid waste management. The most striking thing about the ruling though is that the court has directed citizens to prepare a plan for waste management in their ward, and manage it ongoing. Said even more simply, the judiciary has mandated citizens to wake up and govern themselves – act like the Republic we are.

Seventy years of self governance, woefully inadequate, binds India like nothing else. No matter whether you are a Chennai-ite, Bengaluriga, Mumbaikar or Delhi-ite, you will be deluged by traffic and floods, garbage and sewerage, toxic air and undrinkable water. All completely predictable, totally preventable and entirely due to mis-governance.

Have the everyday people of India, actually internalised a governance of, for and by the people?

From time immemorial and under any kind of rule, autocratic, plutocratic, military, etc., human beings have always wanted a government “for the people.”  It comes from innate survival instinct; not wanting to be deprived or tortured. However, it is relatively recent in most of the world, and some parts like the Middle East are yet to receive the memo, that people hold supreme power in the state. People’s designates govern for them, resulting in a government and governance “by the people.”

Indians seem to understand it intuitively too. That we are a government by the people and for the people: a democracy. After all, we go to the hustings like the world’s most disciplined lot.

Our trouble though is with “of the people.” That we hold supreme power, not those we select through elections. It is noteworthy that “politics,” etymologically relates to “polity” and “polis,” meaning people and place or city. Politics itself simply means, “affairs of the city” or “public affairs.”

The Indian equivalents, on the other hand, in any language, has crudely and tragically been chosen from a feudal etymology, “rajya”, relating to king, kingdom and by extension, state. In various languages, and hence for the various peoples of India, politics as Arasiyal (Tamil), Rajakeeyam (Telugu), Rajakarana (Kannada), Rajneeti (Hindi) or Rashtriyam (Malayalam - rashtra also derives from Raj) is an imagery of the affairs of the reign, an allusion to affairs of the kingdom and rulers, unbroken from feudal times. It is completely contrary to the essence of both politics, the term, and its substance in a democratic republic.

Government is our paid employee and governance is delivery of public services to our terms and conditions. The elected are not our rulers or leaders, but temporary hires to deliver services rightfully due to us, for a defined period only. We own the city and country, we run it as we please with elected representatives doing our bidding. And to that end, we get to deploy the Constitution to regulate not our sovereign selves, but the government.

We are masters of our government, yes, but if “The measure of a man is what he does with power,” we have had power since 1952 and what have we done with it?

Why do we behave subserviently to our elected representatives, and why do they behave like they lord over us? Why are political temporary holders of office telling us what we need? Instead, should not citizens decide what they must have for their area and hold their elected employees accountable to deliver?

That is indeed what the court did by mandating citizens to self govern. Much needed, yes, but also ironic in that we the people erected the third pillar, the judiciary, to uphold the law on our behalf and they are now reminding us, derelict citizens, to do our jobs in the Republic.

Are there other approaches to stimulate citizens to take ownership? Options that prod rather than direct? Options to stimulate citizens to lead governance instead of following, and proactively demand services rather than passively receive?

It is with this in mind that an experiment called the #BekuBedaSanthe was held on October 15 2017 in Bengaluru. It was conceived as a festival for citizens to openly demand what they wanted (Beku) and what they didn't (Beda) for the city. Organised by the Citizens for Bengaluru and numerous RWAs, civic and social organisations, slum rights groups and others, it coincided with the first anniversary of the #SteelFlyoverBeda movement.

The city-wide #BekuBedaSanthe had citizens from across the demographic, apartment dwellers and slum residents, sanitation staff and IT engineers, artistes, children from disadvantaged families, sports people and disabled citizens generate and vote for demands. The #BekuBedaWall displayed common urban themes like housing, public spaces, traffic, roads, water, sewerage, inclusiveness, city government, garbage, walk-ability etc., against which citizens placed specific demands. Thousands of votes were cast in this massive citizenship festival for rain-water harvesting across the city, ward-level garbage management, senior friendly footpaths, vehicle free downtown areas and parks, child friendly roads, priority for public transport over private vehicles etc.

Similar Santhes, or citizenship festivals, are planned in wards and areas to surface local demands.

With the 2018 Karnataka Assembly elections upcoming, the #BekuBedaSanthe could serve as an “All are welcome!” and “Open door” experiment for a citizen manifesto to be generated in an apparent manner. And likewise, the locality Santhe demands, consolidated and prioritised by the citizens in their areas, their RWAs, slum groups, ward committees and others, could become the local people’s manifestos.

Citizen manifestos could be published to various political parties, aspiring candidates and current and opposition representatives in the run up to the election campaign. This makes them answerable as to what they promise to deliver from the citizen’s manifestos, and how they propose to do that.

It turns the tables and enables citizens to reclaim the driver’s seat in governance. The Santhe and its byproduct, the citizen manifesto, can turn the tables on who calls the shots.  Such manifesto is no longer a list of sops promised by a political party to entice vote banks. It is the preemptive, legitimate, negotiated and collective demands of citizens, for after all, who knows the city and its wants better? The citizens or the job applicants for government?

Attempts such as these will also relieve our other set of employees, the judiciary, from having to babysit us. And strengthen the Republic.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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