Updated: May 1, 2020
Should decision making processes be democratised further, or is strong leadership the need of the hour?
When talking of a responsive government, it would not be wrong to say that we as a population have entered the dark times. To achieve a responsive government, there is no either/or choice between democratising the process further and having a strong leadership. In fact one is the path to the other. A strong leader is not one who can take bold decisions, but one whose decisions are actually implemented, accepted, and followed by the populace. What good is a leader who can only take the right decision but not have it implemented? This can only happen when the decisions are taken through a democratic process. If people feel that they were somehow involved in the decision making process (even if remotely) or that their opinions were heard at the time of taking decisions (directly at lower levels or through social or community representative bodies at higher levels), then there is a greater chance of smoother implementation of the decisions. This is especially important in times like these, in the midst of a pandemic. Handling a crisis requires speedy decision-making and swift implementation. One cannot ‘waste’ time convincing people. Hence, if from the start, the decisions are taken after involving and hearing everyone, there is a greater chance of acceptance and by extension expeditious implementation. Essentially, we need to further democratise our decision making process in order to create a strong leadership.
A responsive government is only possible through greater accountability. Accountability ensures that whoever is taking decisions in the government is considering all the relevant factors and taking into account the intersectionality of issues they’re dealing with. While elections are one way of keeping governments accountable, we have enough evidence to realise that just that is not enough. There are many ways to ensure greater accountability even between elections - town halls, more press conferences, more debates amongst leaders, etc. For instance, in the United States of America (USA), even before a candidate secures a party nomination, there are multiple debates between various candidates. Before the election, debates are conducted and both candidates discuss issues of national importance standing opposite each other. The people can see their options indulge in a head-to-head discussion on issues important to them. This allows people to realistically weigh their options. In India, we choose our leader without a single debate between opponents. While one can argue that this is because we have a parliamentary form of government and the USA follows the presidential system, it cannot be denied that having open debates both during and after elections where candidates oppose each other on public forums, is an effective tool to keep a check and ensure accountability. Even after elections, it is important for leaders to continue to engage with the population. We can always compare the number of times our Prime Ministers have held press conferences (even during important times) with the number of times leaders of some foreign nations have held press briefings and press conferences. In many countries the population expects the leader to directly engage and answer questions regularly, and this expectation is heightened in times of crisis or when important policy decisions are underway. Such a culture needs to be embedded within the polity. We as a population need to demand greater engagement and accountability. Greater accountability has to be woven into the very fabric of our democracy to make it responsive.
It is also essential to make the government more representative. This is not to say that more seats need to be reserved. As a population we must vote in a government that truly represents all of us and not just some of us. Let us look at the current scenario, wherein the government has taken a policy decision to impose the lockdown. It would not be wrong to say that while many consequences were anticipated and provided for, this was done without thinking of or providing for migrant workers. The problem sprung up and everyone was jolted into action to come up with solutions to this issue. It is important that we introspect and ask ourselves why this happened. This happened because someone who has never interacted with or had experience as a migrant worker was framing policies. They simply forgot about this section of society. This will be true for any decision. There are non-transgender people legislating for transgender persons. Even if they mean well, how can one expect such people to understand the life experiences of another group completely and then solve their issues via legislation. It is not to say that only transgender persons should legislate the policies that apply to them. However making decision making processes more representative ensures that the life experiences of diverse groups are accounted for while taking decisions. This will also make the people more receptive to the decisions. It also ensures that the policies, which will apply to all the population, take into account the diverse experiences of the different sections of the population. For example, let’s take the issue of menstrual health being ignored in rural India and to solve this issue a policy is brought in whereby free sanitary napkins will be provided at a designated medical clinic in the district. If a Dalit woman, who has no access to that side of village due to the social hierarchy still being followed in that village, then this policy does not benefit that section of the society. The policy was not effective for them. Similarly, most oppression is intersectional and often linked, though such interconnections are overlooked. The more diverse the decision making body is, the greater the likelihood that it will conceive more comprehensive policies. The decisions will also be more effective and it’ll also be easier to ensure their implementation.
Additionally, while governments have to be responsive to their electorate, often many states have a huge migrant population that has no voting rights in that state. It could be possible to set up a body where such migrant populations can submit their grievances and suggestions to the state government. The government could set up a mechanism through which their grievances can reach them, which in-turn will help them legislate better. Even if this subset of the resident population is not a part of the voting population in that state, it cannot be denied that this is a large and consequential population that is living there, utilising its resources, and generating an income for that state. Hence, it is only fair that their voice is heard, especially while making policies that solely impact them, or that their experiences are taken into account when framing general policies. A venue for ‘non-citizens’, so to say, living in that state to express their concerns about policies must be made available.
In these dark times, to have a responsive government is the least a citizen can expect when they vote someone into power. However, elections in themselves are insufficient to ensure responsiveness and accountability. This will also instigate public involvement in state issues. It is up to us, the population, to devise modern mechanisms to hold our leaders accountable, and ensure they are responsive-to us, to our needs, and to our questions. In these dark times, it would be apposite to remember that a very wise woman through the character of a wise-old man with a long white beard once said that "happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” As a population, by switching on the light of accountability, we can find a responsive government that works for building a truly happy society.
Ashita is a law clerk/research assistant at the Supreme Court of India, attached to Hon’ble Mr. Justice Deepak Gupta. She is a big Shah Rukh Khan fan and when she’s not watching re-runs of his movies, she works on gender rights and justice, as well as tackling cyber sexual abuse. Ashita also wants you to know that she did not write this bio.