Bringing the demos back into democracy
Whenever asked for the definition of democracy, the oft-used response is from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, where he called it a government, “…of the people, by the people, for the people”. The very term democracy comes from a combination of two Greek words: demos (people) and kratos (rule or power). While the very essence of democracy places ordinary people at the centre of the political system, in reality the ‘people’ have been conspicuous by their very absence from our democracy. Remembered only once in five years when they have to cast their ballot, the ordinary citizens have been pushed to the margins of democracy by high expense, media-managed and corporate-funded election campaigns followed by five years of policy-making centred around the vested interests of the political class and their financial backers.
The anti-corruption movement and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party represents the re-assertion ‘of the people’ in our democracy, and it is this re-assertion that is reflected in the governance model of the AAP-led Delhi government.
The anti-corruption movement that shook the nation in 2011 may have been led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal but was essentially a spontaneous movement of the ordinary citizens of this country against the debilitating corruption faced by them at every level of governance. People from all walks of life, from metros, small towns and villages came out in support of a strong anti-graft legislation. The fact that Parliament chose not to pass the legislation demanded by the people was a reflection of the very malaise that people were protesting against. And it is this inability of the democratic system to respond to demands of the people that gave birth to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
As AAP entered electoral politics, it kept its ears on the ground – choosing to listen to what the people wanted. Nukkad Sabhas were held, door-to-door campaigning was done, separate manifestos were created for each constituency – to get to know what the people wanted. Election promises were not conjured up either by think-tanks or vested interests. They came from the people. The core anti-corruption agenda was expanded and ordinary citizens’ demands for cheaper electricity, access to water and high quality healthcare and education facilities were brought to the centre-stage.
The governance model of the AAP is the next step in the same trajectory of bringing the demos back into democracy. Not only is it premised upon an ongoing engagement with the people, to listen to their concerns and demands but it takes one step further by involving them in their very process of governance. Three examples that typify the governance of AAP and the centrality of the ordinary citizens within it are: Chief Minister’s ‘Janta Samwaad’, empowerment of School Management Committees of government schools and the formation of Mohalla Sabhas. Each of these is placed on the continuum of a governance system that listens to the people, makes government institutions accountable to them and creates forums for people to participate directly in decision-making.
The Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, opens his doors to listen to ordinary citizens not as an occasional token measure; for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week he meets people who come to his residence with their grievances. The grievances of every individual are heard and directed to the appropriate department. These are followed up by the ‘Public Grievance Monitoring System’ till the citizen themselves are satisfied by the successful resolution of their concerns. This ‘Janta Samwaad’ is not merely for resolving individual grievances, but for understanding the issues faced by ordinary citizens. Grievances brought to the ‘Janta Samwaad’ become the starting point for policy changes and administrative reforms.
Another governance reform of the AAP government has been the empowerment of School Management Committees (SMCs) in the government schools. Created by the Right to Education Act, as a body of stakeholders to whom a government school would be accountable, these SMCs have largely been defunct in most parts of the country. Where most parents of first-generation school-goers have even felt hesitant to enter the school premises or let alone ask any questions, the SMCs in Delhi have become an integral part of the government school system. They meet once a month to discuss the status of the school, ensure teachers’ regularity, check the quality of the mid-day meal served to the students, as well as go through the expenses and accounts of the school. Women with their heads covered with dupattas – who may never have stepped out of their homes earlier – are now a regular sight in the principals’ offices, sitting and discussing the improvement needed in the schools. Now an important government institution – the school – is accountable not only to its vertical hierarchy of officials but to the very people whom it is serving.
The transformation of governance, into a people-centric model by the AAP government, does not stop at listening to people or making institutions accountable to them but by bringing citizens to the very centre of the decision-making process. The formation of Mohalla Sabhas is a step in this direction. Last year, Mohalla Sabhas were held on a pilot basis in 11 Assembly Constituencies as a pre-budgetary exercise. From this year onwards, the entire city is going to be divided into Mohallas where people will participate directly in the decision-making process in an ongoing manner.
It is participation by the people that led to the creation of the Aam Aadmi Party. It is this very participation that is being institutionalised in the governance by the AAP. By creating forums for listening to the voice of the people, by making government institutions directly accountable to them and by creating forums of direct democracy, the very process of governance has been removed from the exclusive confines of the corridors of power and brought to the citizens of the city – to whom it truly belongs. The 'demos' have been brought back into our democracy.
(Atishi Marlena is a senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, who works as an Advisor to the Government of the NCT of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)