Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Experiment of Referendum Recall and Initiative in India

Captain Vijayakanth( for those of who you who are not familiar with Tamil movies, he is the prospective Chief Minister-in-the-making !!) in his customary fiery cinematic dialogues once spoke of the need for concepts Referendum and Recall in Indian politics.

I have heard of these concepts with American polity ( remember Californian Governor Arnie ,the Terminator, came to power by ousting Gray Davis in a Recall vote. ) but a Tamil Super hero speaking these complex concepts was quite a pleasant surprise to me. Some of the desi folks make fun of Captain (see Youtube clippings under Vijayakanth for a sample) but the idea he is conveying to the common Tamil masses through a cinematic medium is quite radical and worthy of appreciation.

I guess it is time for such radical new political experimentation in our countries. The Legislative hardly produces a fruitful debates, rather it has denigrated to a kind of fish market mayhem, with charges and counter-charges (and sometimes furniture too!!) being hurled across the benches. In short the people's trust in these democratic institutions is at an all-time abyss.

If the legislators ,who we elect periodically, hardly discharge the concomitant legislative duties as a law makers, its high time ordinary citizenry are also roped into this public policy process. Of course it is not practical (or simply stupidity) to get all Tom, Dick or Harry to participate in the proceedings of the Legislative house. (In a effect this is the idealised and most pristine form of democracy in working, where every individual has a equal say. Maybe this kind is possible in the lowest of Panchayati Raj institutions ,but certainly not in Legislative House like Lok sabha serving the needs of a 1.2 billion people)

This is where complicated democratic concepts like Referendum, Initiatives and Recall comes into play. In simpler terms the people (or eligible electorate to be precise) takes a more pro-active role in public policy formation, instead placing reliance on the elected representative.

Referendum is a legislative authorised popular vote on a specific policy issue. Say for example the Legislative is divided on the stance of Reservation quantum ,Uniform Civil Code issue, criminality of Homosexuality etc. referendum offers a means of gauging the public opinion and eventually implement the necessary changes. Of course our Constitution has no provision for such Referendums, hence it would take a lot more than academic talk to implement such radical proposals. Proposition 209 in California abolished Affirmative Action in Higher education (equivalent of India's reservation system). Thus these measures can serve as test to identify public expectations in socially sensitive issues.

Initiative on the other hand, is citizen authorised referendum proposal. Here the need for the legislative change is dictated from the general public (although its the specific interest groups that directs the process). This policy instrument is vulnerable for distortions to suit the needs of private interest groups. For example Californian voters had to vote on a model Initiative legislation on Banning the Consumption of Horse Meat!!, brought in by the horse race lobby group. Of course it wasn't the most pressing of California's problems, but since it had the requisite signature support of the voters the initiative had to be executed. ( I am really thinking hard of finding alternate examples apart from California, but I can't remember any. I guess what works in California might not work here in India, but still some tinkering can be done to suit our needs)

Finally comes the controversial instrument of Recall of Elected represenatives. It is the nightmare of every elected netas in our country. Certainly it can be abused by detracters to suit their needs. But it is high time that our country begins to consider operationalising this policy instrument. Of course there is bound to be unnessary controversies. Questions like how this motion of Recall may be moved? Who will bear the cost of moving such motions? What abou the cost of frequent elections, refrendum and initiative excercises? what percentage of voters is needed to move such motion? who is the target electoraate on certain issue? (e.g. minorties will not favour Uniform Civil Code, but their voice could be suppresed by the overwhelming support of the majority)? What are the constitutional issues involved in these processes? (imagine a state voting in favour of seceeding from the Union) And most importantly is our elctorate competent enough to vote on such complex policy issues?

So until such questions are answered, it is really difficult to implement such changes. At least we can make a start by sowing the germinal seeds of such concepts into the public mindset now.

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