Is Participative Democracy Necessarily A Good Thing?

The public protests in India in support of Anna Hazare and his demand for a law in exactly the form his team has drafted it, was a rare instance of people demanding proactive role in governance. While such participation empowers people, it also has a cost, which makes it impractical and not necessarily the best form of governance.

The month of August, 2011 will probably find a place of significance in the history of democratic governance, whenever it is updated next. The month was marked by a nationwide people’s movement in favor of a law proposed by a few civil

activists. Anna Hazare, a septuagenarian activist who follows Gandhi as his role model went on a fast-unto-death demanding that parliament legislate a law for which he has made the draft, to create a powerful ombudsman for investigating corruption. People from all wakes of life joined Anna converting it into a mass movement not seen for a very long time in the country. Anna remained on fast for 12 days when the parliament held a special session to discuss the matter and passed a resolution agreeing to the demands of Anna in principle, though it sought more time to ensure the necessary parliamentary procedure for making the law.

A Law made by the People

This was one of the rare instances when the people in a democracy took the process of law making in their own hands, and created enough pressure for the parliament to act as per their demands. Most analysts believe that it was the general disgust of people with corruption that allowed this to happen. Others think it was their mistrust with the political class that led to this agitation getting such massive support. Ironically, the Government had agreed to come up with a bill for creating such an ombudsman, but the civil society insisted on its own version of the proposed law, and people continued to fully support their demands.

Everybody is not equally convinced about whatever was going on during this massive drama played in the larger cities across the country. For a month or so, it was being continuously telecast live on all major news channels. Some think it was media hype. Others believe people joined the movement to get a feeling of doing something important, even if they were not aware of the details of the laws proposed to be made by the civil society and the government. Some go to the extent of accusing the opposition of organizing crowds in support of the agitation just to embarrass the government. It is also true that some of the people who were there, were just having a new experience. For the generation X, which has only heard about mass movements in British India, it was like a live realty show on a massive scale.

All views apart, the event raises a very pertinent question that people are asking now that the hype has subsided. Should people be participating in the governance matters and law making directly instead of leaving it to their elected representatives?

Representative vs. Participative Democracy

So far, the model of democracy followed around the world is representative democracy, wherein the representatives of the people selected by election form a Government, which then exercises all authority and takes all governance decisions including making the laws, without going back to the people. Unlike this system, there can be another model in which people participate more intensely in decision making and governance. They would then have a say in all major issues related to governance. The need of the hour is to understand as to which of the two models is more beneficial for the society.

Cost Benefit Analysis of Participative Democracy

To understand this issue, let us take an extreme case. An ideal democracy will be one where every decision is taken by the government after taking into account the informed opinion of every citizen. (let us restrict it to all major citizens).

It means that every citizen must be aware of every issue faced by government, must know about

it, must understand it and then should be capable of taking a reasonably informed and rational decision on it. Even if we presume that every citizen is as educated, interested, aware and capable as the government, just imagine how much time of every citizen has to be consumed by the democracy. In my opinion, even 24 hours a day will not be enough to achieve this.

This time of citizens and the effort made by the citizens is the COST OF DEMOCRACY. Just shows how costly an ideal democracy can be. Probably that is the reason why democracy never reaches ideal levels of participation. Thus practically speaking, no democracy can reach ideal participative status.

Let us move away from the extreme. Let us not burden the citizen with each and every decision. On the other hand, let us leave it to the citizen to decide as to how much time he / she wishes to devote to democracy. Let us say every citizen is willing to devote one hour a day. Presuming there are 0.6 billion major citizens in India, it comes to 0.6 billion man-hours a day or roughly 218 billion man-hours a year. This is the cost of democracy.

Now let us look at the benefits.

There is absolutely no guarantee that a decision taken by 0.6 billion people will be better than the decision taken by a very small group with maximum expertise on the issue. There is a real possibility that a small group of such experts may do the job far more efficiently. It means that the benefits of participative democracy are limited.

This severe mismatch in cost and benefit is probably the reason why participative democracy is not necessarily preferable.

Participative Democracy May Not Necessarily be the Best Form of Governance

Since the costs of participative democracy are far greater than the benefits that it entails, maybe we need to ask whether participative democracy and people's participation is the panacea for all ills. May be we need to ask what we want and how can we get it. We should ask as to how we can possibly get a decent life for those millions who do not have it today.

Coming back to India, in its short history since 1947, only two approaches have been adopted for solving all its governance problems. One of them is the legal approach - make laws, and when they fail, make more laws. The second approach to problem solving is political - agitation, support, blame or hail some body, carry out a rally, popular slogans, fierce speeches and blame the government for everything. A third approach that is fast gaining ground in recent times is journalistic - sensationalize and create a lot of news. This has an added benefit of entertainment, and it gets a lot of voluntary support from the news hungry media, whose loyalties are governed by its ideology of maximizing viewership.

Middle class in India, which is now reasonably better off, finds itself in a position where it can afford to spend some time for democracy. It gives it a sense of higher self esteem in addition to providing it participative entertainment. As its economic condition improves, it will demand more participation, but not necessarily with any sense of responsibility or accountability. The danger is a false perception of participation of people, when such participation is more recreational than result oriented.

Unfortunately, neither votes, nor laws, nor courts, nor news can create jobs or provide employment or bring relief to the most downtrodden. No surprise then that the poorest of poor in India are not interested in any of them.

Article Written By V Kumar

I am a freelance writer. I write for the passion of writing. Life has blessed me an opportunity to be a witness to many interesting aspects of life and people around the world. Indeed, these are very interesting times and we who live in this era are privileged to experience it. You can find my articles at

Last updated on 09-09-2017 125 0

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