Who’s accountable in a democracy?

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Accountability has become the bu­z­zword of democracy. An ideal demo­cracy is supposed to be one where administration and governance is transparent, efficient and, above all, accountable. There are many checks and balances which are supposed to act as watchdogs in a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy is one where the welfare of its citizens is automatic, their opinion carries weight in the decision-making process and even though the government is a democratically elected one, when crucial decisions are made, the consent of its citizens is obtained. The mechanism for such a consent is in the form of a referendum.

The case in point is the Lokpal Bill. Much has been said by the government as well as the opposition in Parliament. Innumerable debates are doing rounds in the electronic media and editorial columns. The people of India too had an opinion — the Lokpal was their saviour. However, they had no say in how the Lokpal was elected. They were not asked for their opinion, nor did they get an opportunity to vote for either the government’s Lokpal or the civil society’s Jan Lokpal. When we can vote to select people’s representatives who then form the government, why are we being denied the right to express our opinion decisively and in a manner binding on the government? In Sweden the people vote for the proposed budget and only if the majority vote for the government’s budget proposals does the budget come into force, this happens every year. India has not had a referendum ever in its entire life as a sovereign, independent nation. Indians are not allowed to enjoy this privilege of democracy.

Our democracy suffers from the bane of privileges, contempt and morale. Our elected representatives enjoy and abuse privileges. House privileges automatically protect them from prosecution. To be able to prosecute an elected representative or a civil servant, one needs to get permissions first. Many a times, these permissions are denied or inordinately delayed, allowing the elected representatives and officials the opportunity to destroy evidence and subvert the cases. Why should a healthy democracy, which does not give such protection to its citizens, allow such malicious privileges to people’s representatives and civil servants?

Recently, Afzal Guru, the chief accused in the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, was finally executed after a long and inexplicable delay. One shudders to read the court’s ruling on his sentencing and various mercy petitions. In convicting Guru, the court had accepted a lot of circumstantial evidence. But, in many of the 2002 Gujarat riots cases, the chief minister of Gujarat had been acquitted because much of the evidence proving his complicity in the riots was circumstantial. Two different yardsticks applied in two different cases. While rejecting Guru’s mercy petition, the court also said that his life must be made extinct because that would be the only measure that would assuage public sentiments. Since when was justice delivered to assuage public sentiments? Since when was the quantum of punishment dictated to by public sentiment? But, question the court’s decision or duplicity and the judiciary will gang up and threaten prosecution under the draconian and archaic law of ‘contempt of court.’ In a democracy, the judiciary should also be accountable to citizens? The threat of ‘contempt of court’ is undemocratic and anti-people.

The rot in the armed forces and the police has been exposed in so many cases. The abuse of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (Afspa), the venality of the senior officers of the armed forces, the inefficiency and criminality in the police force. The north-east has been agitating against Afspa, Irom Sharmila has become the icon of the human rights fight for the repeal of Afspa. But, the armed forces subvert every attempt to repeal this draconian and unjust measure by warning that the morale of the forces will be affected, and nobody dares challenge the selectively fragile morale of the armed forces. A corrupt and inefficient police force has made law enforcement a farce. The morale of the forces is inured to the rampant corruption of its senior officers. It seems to be unaffected by the grossly inhumane treatment of its enlisted personnel by the officers cadre. But, speak about prosecuting the guilty or repealing the special privileges that protect them unfairly, and they immediately warn of the force’s ‘morale’ being affected, and hint at dire circumstances that could emerge as a result of an injured ‘morale’. Police reforms are held in abeyance because the political class does not wish to lose its ability to manipulate the police and the police do not want to lose the patronage and privileges that accrue.

Unacceptable privileges, the threat of contempt and morale have become a bane of our democracy. The citizen’s ability to participate in the process of law-making has be­en subverted by the denial of the democratic process of referendum. To save our democracy from anarchy, democratic reforms are a critical necessity.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)


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