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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Recently, Lok Satta released a list of 51 politicians with criminal antecedents, based on nine verifiable, rational and objective criteria, including those who were acquitted in cases pertaining to grave offences. Looking to the ground swell of public opinion in support of the list, the political parties had to at least temporarily defer nominating the politicians who figured in the list.

The general public in the state were more or less unanimous in their support to Lok Satta’s efforts to curb the criminalistaion of politics. But there were murmurs of protest, dissent and a few questions. The criticism from the politicians who figured in the list is understandable. After all, Lok Satta’s list has threatened to undermine their political careers. “Can a citizens’ group disclose information like that?” was the most baffling question that was raised by a small segment of the educated class. This question requires a two-fold answer.

First, the answer is simple and straight – every citizen of this country has the right to take steps which will enhance the quality of our democracy and strengthen the basic freedoms of all individuals. However, such actions should be in consonance with the spirit of the Constitution, and should not violate the fundamental rights of others. It is in this spirit that Lok Satta released the list of politicians against whom criminal cases are either pending or were acquitted. Further, the Supreme Court, in its judgment on May 2, 2002, which attained finality on March 13, 2003 through another judgment, clearly held that the citizens have a fundamental right to know all relevant information about candidates for elective office. The court, inter alia, held that information “whether the candidate is convicted / acquitted / discharged of any criminal offence, if any….” should be made public. The judgement was based on the premise that opening up of our democratic processes is a “surest means to cleanse our democratic governing system and to have competent legislature.” The attempt by Lok Satta to implement the disclosure of candidate details is in furtherance of fundamental right to free speech and right to vote of millions of people in this country.

Second, the question, (Can a citizens’ group disclose information like that?) is symptomatic of greater malaise that is afflicting us – the reluctance of many people to act as free individuals. There is no ambiguity on the issues involved as the law explicitly mandates disclosures and yet people not only hesitate to act spontaneously, but question the very validity of such acts. As long as the information disclosed is verifiable, and based on objective criteria, there cannot be any ground for hesitation. The Supreme Court clearly held that our right to know the antecedent of candidates is an extension of our fundamental right to information. In any case, common sense tells us that a candidate for elective office has an obligation to give us all information which has a bearing on his public work. When there is a conflict between the individual’s right to privacy, and our collective right to have better representation, the people’s right takes precedence. Democracy has made us free individuals, and has provided us with many tools to combat the ills that are plaguing our society. But quite often most of us are reluctant to use them. One starts to wonder whether John Dewey was right when he said: “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?….is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?” Why is this so and what are the specific factors that prompt submissive attitude among many in this country?

For over hundreds of years, caste system governed Indian society and it laid emphasis on hierarchy and strict delineation of functions. We may no longer adhere to the caste system, but innately there are many who still seem to unconsciously accept the hierarchal notions and functional delineation. Such an attitude leads to a climate of fear, unquestioned obedience and impenetrable barriers between those in authority and the people. The citizens, who are the true sovereigns in a democracy, become the subjects, and our servants become rulers.  The excessive state control that we witnessed till recently reinforced the belief that the function of ushering in change is the duty of the state rather than that of citizens. The license – permit – raj accentuated these tendencies by making people dependant on state patronage for a variety of simple goods and services. As a consequence, the norms that accompany democracy such as notion of equality and concept of individuality were not completely internalized and absence of democratic culture became a defining feature of our polity. Whether it is police brutalities, or high handedness of officials or periodic breakdown of law and order or the centralized decision making processes in our political parties and government - all of them reflect the absence of democratic culture in our social life.  At an individual level, most of us tend to believe that the actions that ensure the good of the society are the function of some distant and superior authority. There are many manifestations of such attitudes. The genuflecting respect that many pay to the people in power and absence of dignity of labour are but few examples. A citizen behaves as a sovereign only at the time of voting and quickly falls into a stupor after the elections. The question now is how to make the citizen a “true sovereign.”

The answer lies in ensuring the primacy of the individual and providing her as much space as possible to act freely. This requires strong and vibrant local governments, and internal democracy in political parties that provide space for citizens to express themselves. Civil Society should facilitate active citizens’ involvement in public affairs and devise tools for collective assertion.  We can strengthen our democracy only through, to use Karl Popper’s words, “the bold propounding of trial solutions which are then subjected to criticism and error-elimination.” Only “free” individuals who have space to experiment can carry out such “trial solutions” and “error elimination”.