In a democracy, there should not be a difference between citizens and activists as every active, alert or concerned citizen is automatically an activist. In fact, every citizen must be aware of what is going around him or her, what the impact is and what impact he can make in society.
Prof Jagdeep Chokkar, the co-founder of the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), which is focused on electoral and political reforms, was speaking on the subject `Civic Elections and Citizen Activism’ on the occasion of the 8th anniversary of the RTI Katta (now online). He stated that political activity is a continuous process, one of the goals of which is elections. Hence, citizens’ role has to be continued and must not be limited to casting a vote. He called for participatory democracy.
However, Prof Chokkar stated that most citizens lack ‘constitutional literacy’ as they are ‘innocent or ignorant’. He also said that although most people will tell you that it is they who elect the government, it is pertinent to ask whether a citizen really has the freedom to vote for the candidate they want.
Pointing out that a candidate is the one who the political party has selected, Prof Chokkar said, “When India became independent, there was a large number of political candidates contesting as independents (36 won the Lok Sabha election in 1952) but the figure in the last election has reduced to a dismal four. So, are you contributing to a healthy democracy by electing a candidate as a voter’s choice is pre-constrained by the choices made by a given set of political parties? Thus, candidates who are backed by political parties have a better chance of winning the elections over the years. The political parties themselves have set this limitation for the citizens.’’
Elaborating on the other role of the elected ones, he questioned what the elected representatives do after being elected when a Bill is introduced.
“Aren’t they supposed to come back to the people to make them aware of the contents of the bill and get feedback? However, the elected representatives are helpless as they have no choice. Their respective political party gives them the whip, and they have to abide by it or else they face suspension. Our country is a vibrant democracy but are the pillars of democracy democratic? No political party is democratic. Our democracy is hollow; it is superficial.”
Speaking on how civic elections are critical, Prof Chokkar stated that the responsibility of the citizens begins with civic elections because issues of the civic body are very close to the citizens. Be it roads, electricity or law and order, it is directly connected to them and, hence, they must be abreast of what’s going on. He said they should ask themselves who they are voting for.
While ADR conducts election watches for almost all the state assemblies and parliament elections in collaboration with the National Election Watch (NEW), Prof Chokkar lamented, “Unfortunately ADR is unable to do an election watch for the municipal corporation elections, as it does for the assembly and general elections as they are too widespread and we lack adequate funds and resources.”
However, he suggested that there should also be election watches at the city level so that information about every candidate is made public so that the individual citizen is better informed on whom to vote for.
Prof Chokkar stated, “No one has the right to tell anyone to vote. The voter should not be uninformed, misinformed, ill-informed or partially informed. He should have enough information to enable him to make a choice.”
He also mentioned that the powers given to the local self-government would materialise only with the constitutional literacy of citizens.
Prof Chokkar reminisced that even before the seed of the Right of Information Act (RTI) was sown in this country, the ADR had filed a writ petition for increasing transparency and accountability in the political and electoral system of the country, in which “we had used the term right to information, 35 times.’’
Lamenting that “we are a nation of advisors and not doers,’’ he urged every activist to drop his or her ego as each one thinks that he or she is only doing the best. He stated that a citizen activist should be a model citizen himself if people have to believe in his campaigns for the larger public good.
Mahesh Zagade, former principal secretary of Maharashtra, also spoke on occasion and called for a more significant public movement to bring in political transparency and to make the people more participative and pro-active.
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar had launched the ‘RTI Katta’ online on 5 January 2021. The objective of the RTI Katta is to empower people through discussions with each other. It is an umbrella organisation where the attendees get an insight into various issues.
“Several people answer a person’s query, which results in a healthier and more relevant solution rather than one RTI expert providing the answer. Moreover, it strengthens the belief in the RTI movement, which the government repeatedly scuttles through various circulars and amendments,’’ says Mr Kumbhar.