Is electoral and institutional reform the answer?


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CONTEMPORARY responses to the democratic experience are marked by a series of paradoxes. On the one hand, democracy, in countries like India, has been a wonderful mechanism for chastening certain kinds of authority, making the structure of political power more fluid and creating an assertive and intensely politicized civil society. On the other, democracy seems to many not to have been an effective mechanism for mitigating the effects of social inequality and for the provision of public goods.

Within a larger global context there is another paradox. On the one hand, liberal representative democracy enjoys unprecedented legitimacy. Many exciting institutional experiments in making democracy more effective are underway in many parts of the world: reservations for marginalized groups, devolution, subsidiarity, decentralization, referendums are being tried with varying degrees of success. On the other hand, the moment of democracy’s unprecedented legitimacy is also a moment of great disenchantment with its functioning.

The continued dominance of powerful interests, the distortions introduced in the electoral process by campaign finance, voter apathy in advanced industrial countries and voter cynicism in other democracies, seems to dim the bright light of democratic empowerment. But even more long term and deeper structural changes are forcing us to rethink the effectiveness of representative democracy. One indication of this structural change seems to be that national legislatures in many countries seem to be increasingly weakened. Arguably, non-elected bodies like central banks and judiciaries now have relatively greater power, and the constraints on national legislatures imposed by multilateral agreements and globalization seem to diminish the authority of legislatures considerably. While none of these developments are, in any straight-forward sense, anti-democratic, they do cast doubt on the proposition that national legislatures are straightforwardly the institution through which popular sovereignty can be expressed.

The experience of these paradoxes is the context in which many debates about electoral reform are taking place in India and elsewhere. In India there has been much discussion about electoral reform. I do not intend to go into that discussion in any great detail. Rather, I want briefly to suggest that in these debates many dimensions of the democratic experience are being ignored. Most of the reforms we require, I argue, cannot be introduced by legislative fiat, but require the hard labour of politics and self-transformation. The rush to legalistic solutions, in my view, not only shows contempt for politics, but also misdiagnoses the weakness of our democratic experience. In order to make this case, I will simply lay out, in propositional form, the goods that democracy is meant to procure, and suggest that many of these cannot be legislated into existence.



Democracy is a means of authorization: Democracy is a mechanism by which people, considered to be free and equal, allocate authority to make decisions on their behalf. The nature of this allocation is such that those to whom power is entrusted cannot usurp the popular sovereignty in whose name they are authorized. This is a purely formal conception of democracy and evokes less controversy.

Democracy as accountability: In principle elections are the means by which voters are empowered to sanction their rulers. While the basic idea behind democratic accountability is simple, its institutional expression is anything but. This is so for two reasons. One, talk of electoral reform is occasioned by the fact that we now recognize elections to be, at best, very blunt instruments of accountability. Despite heavy anti-incumbent voting, elections seem to discipline politicians less than we would like.

But second, there is a series of tensions internal to the concept of accountability. For example, transparency can sometimes be in tension with responsiveness and representation in tension with both. Or in elections for example, it is notorious that there is a tradeoff between seeing elections as a device to sanction the behaviour of incumbents and seeing them as a device for selecting the best candidates. There are also inter-temporal tradeoffs in the concept of accountability. Policies that seem harmful in the short run may secure a better future in the long run. By which time horizons should we hold those in power accountable?

The crucial point is that harmonizing the different components of accountability cannot be done by conceptual fiat. It is an empirical matter that has to be addressed by institutional design and more importantly, the concrete work of politics. But often in discussing these matters we assume that accountability is either one single thing, or that its various components all go together. Much of our discussion of reform seems to make this assumption and is impatient with the intrinsic messiness of accountability.



Democracy as a means of empowerment: While making governments accountable is a facet of empowerment, it is by no means the only one. Empowerment is, to put it simply, the idea that decisions and policies that govern us are under our effective control. Clearly this is one area where institutional design matters a good deal. In many instances, centralization can produce disempowerment. To the extent that democracy is a system of popular control over decision-making, there is often the suggestion that there is an inverse relationship between size and direct participation.



The reforms contemplated in the 73rd and 74th Amendments are, to this extent, steps in the right direction. But debate over these reforms underestimates the difficulties in decentralization. Or to be more precise, we often talk about two difficulties when it comes to local government. The first is that devolution might reinforce rather than diminish the hold of local hierarchies as Ambedkar feared. The second is that often the devolution is purely formal, with local bodies given few effective powers.

Yet, even if these deficiencies could be corrected, devolution remains a tricky matter. The theoretically more difficult question to deal with arises from problems of coordination amongst local bodies and between them and higher levels of government. My own hunch is that the challenges of coordination cannot be formulated independently of particular policy issues. Delivery of public services might generate different questions than fiscal coordination, for example. But any debate that either takes the form: centralization versus decentralization, or gives a priori answers to question of scale will be counter-productive. For example, there is no determinate answer to the question whether greater federalism will generate more or less fiscal discipline. These questions have to be negotiated as part of an ongoing political process and cannot be the object of one time institutional reform.



Democracy as a means of representation: One way of conceiving of the legitimacy of democratic institutions is to enhance their representativeness. By representativeness in this context we usually mean one particular thing. The composition of the legislatures and elected bodies should more faithfully reflect the social groupings within society. In particular, this composition should not exclude significant marginalized groups. Reservations are often thought of as a simple device for ensuring representation. In the debate over representativeness we ought to be careful not to make too many easy assumptions.

First, representativeness does not automatically imply responsiveness to the needs of particular groups. Evidence on this is mixed and the causes that go into the making of responsive government are complex. Second, legally mandated reservation is not the only means of enhancing the representation of certain groups. This again is more often most effectively achieved by political conventions than legislative compulsion.

Third, if we think that our public institutions should mirror social cleavages more closely, we ought to own up to that aspiration more directly. Our problem is that we are now, through reservations, aspiring to produce proportional outcomes through a first past the post system. The logic of our aspiration to proportionality is colliding with our institutional forms. This is one reason why the bill to give greater representation to women in Parliament has had such a difficult passage. If proportionality is our objective, then we need a more radical reform than reservations.

The strongest argument for taking proportionality seriously is this: it is the most effective way of different groups being able to say that public institutions are, in some important sense, their own. To this extent politics must aspire to be more representative. But legislated solutions like reservations, other than in the case of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, are going to be more ambiguous in their effects than advocates of reservations recognize.



Democracy as an epistemic enterprise: One of the advantages of democracies over rivals is that, in principle, it allows for an unimpeded flow of information. While in some senses this is true, the time has come to ask hard questions about whether politically relevant information is freely circulated and discussed. It is a striking fact that Indian politicians seldom discuss complex policy issues during elections. Very few voters, especially in allegedly educated constituencies like South Delhi, could tell you the legislative accomplishments of their representative. Most of this information is legally available, but whether they are made part of a deliberative process, both by politicians and voters, is debatable.

The central challenge for Indian democracy is to enhance the quality of deliberation, especially about complex policy issues. This is true of citizens as much as it is of representatives. Arguably our representative chambers are no longer effective mediums for refining and enlarging public views. Instead they have become the site where men and women of factious tempers, sometimes dangerous pre-judices subvert the public interest. Legislatively securing the right to information is only one small part of securing the proper conditions for deliberation. Again, for enhancing the quality of deliberation in politics, there is no substitute for the concrete work of politics and social mobilization.

Democratizing civil society: Democratic habits in politics are usually thought to have spillover effects. The chastening of authority, the acknowledgement of equality, the recognition of difference, are all supposed to spill over to civil society institutions as well. Indeed, in the long run a robust democracy can only be sustained by democratic social relations.

The extent to which this is happening in civil society is a matter of some contention. There are clearly senses in which, while there is a good deal of violence, authority, does not go unchallenged in civil society. Yet the experience of hierarchy and humiliation is still fundamental to many aspects of Indian civil society. These experiences impede the emergence of a fundamentally democratic moral psychology based on reciprocity and trust. While legislative reforms can address some structural features of these inequalities, legislation is unlikely to be sufficient to democratize social relations. This again requires the hard labour of politics.



Democracy as a means of securing stable government: In current debates, there is, legitimately a concern with stability of governments. The assumptions are that too much instability in government prevents the public good from being secure. Coalition governments, on this view, are unstable. Small parties can prevent public goods from being secured by keeping government hostage to their own interest. Fiscal discipline is more difficult to enforce and effectiveness and responsiveness alike are undermined.

There is much to be said against having frequent coalition governments. But in historical perspective, it must be borne in mind that coalition governments are less likely to be a menace to the public interest than one party dominance. While addressing our fiscal crisis and economic reform is made difficult by the existence of a coalition government, one party dominant government produced far worse economic outcomes. From this perspective, the emphasis on stability is overblown.

In addition, contemporary debate on electoral reform misdiagnoses the sources of a fragmented party system that necessitate coalition governments. It is now clear that it is the internal structures of parties, the lack of intraparty democracy in particular, that has impeded the growth of a healthier party system. What we need is a reform of the internal working of political parties, rather than electoral reform. But here also, one must be cautious about using the state to mandate these reforms. Giving the state too much discretionary power over who can or cannot participate in politics carries considerable danger. And the arbitrariness of most state institutions does not inspire confidence that the state should be given vast powers to disqualify candidates and parties from elections.



Democracy as a means for securing collective goods: Much of the debate over institutional and electoral reform in India focuses on the ways in which formal institutions provide opportunities for collective action. There is comparatively less discussion of the forms of collective action required to take effective advantage of the opportunities formal structures offer. There is widespread agreement that one of the most glaring failures of our polity has been its inability to secure the minimum level of goods required for a decent human existence for an unconscionably large number of its citizens.

But does this require, as the Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution often suggests, electoral reform. If, for example, the state has been weak in providing public goods like education, health and infrastructure, does this have something to do with the formal design of institutions, or is it a consequence of patterns of mobilization in civil society? To put it polemically, is it easier to mobilize around certain kinds of issues, say reservations or communal issues, than it is to mobilize around other issues requiring the provision of public services?

This is an extremely complicated question and would require a lengthy consideration of all the factors that make collective action possible. Yet we often seem to make the assumption that our failures to provide public goods must simply be a consequence of faulty institutional design. We rather need to attend more carefully to concrete social and political processes that make effective collective action on important things more likely.



Democracy, rights and the rule of law: The relationship between democracy and rights is complex. Some basic rights and liberties like the freedom of expression and so forth are the best expression of our standing as free and equal citizens. They are in this sense constitutive of any democratic experience. One of the central weaknesses of the Indian state has been that these rights are often more precarious than they ought to be. Their precariousness comes from two sources.

The first is lack of effective enforcement across a wide variety of domains. The Indian state, while large, is only weakly institutionalized. The second source of the precariousness of democratic rights is the security syndromes of the Indian state that have often led to an abridgment of fundamental rights. Addressing both these deficiencies is unlikely to be a product of electoral reform.

The institutional weakness, arbitrariness and haphazardness of the Indian state have a variety of causes: adverse incentive structures, lopsided mobilization in civil society and so forth. There is no convincing argument that electoral reform will make a serious dent in this problem. The second source of threat to our rights is better addressed by ideological hard work than institutional quick fix.



There is story of a man who was searching for a key under a lamppost. When a passerby asked the man where he had lost the key, he replied that he had lost it some distance away from the lamppost. Astonished, the passerby asked, ‘Why are you searching under the lamppost?’ The man replied, ‘Because there is light under the lamppost.’ We are looking at electoral reform, not because that’s where we lost the key, but because there appears to be light there. I have briefly tried to suggest that the major problems of our democracy have less to do with institutional and electoral design and more to do with the character of our collective efforts within society.

To create a government that is accountable, a citizenry that is discriminating, imaginative and tolerant, institutions that effectively deliver public goods, and laws that are properly enforced and institutionalized, we require transformation of civil society of a kind that has little to do with the formal design of electoral systems. This may make the task at hand more opaque and daunting. But it is a dangerous illusion to think that there are legislative quick fixes in politics. Politics is, and ought to be, in Max Weber’s memorable phrase, ‘the slow boring of hard boards.’