The largest democracy went to the polls recently and registered an unexpected verdict. Outgoing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gracefully conceded defeat on national television and a multi-party coalition led by the Indian National Congress formed the new government in New Delhi. The healthy voter participation and a peaceful transition of power reaffirm that democracy is alive and well in India.
There is another, lesser known but perhaps more promising, democratic process happening at a grassroots level in India. The founder of Lok Satta, Jayaprakash Narayan, visited the United States in June and talked passionately about this people’s movement for better governance that started in Andhra Pradesh.
The vote against incumbents in this and previous elections indicates people’s disappointment with government, he surmised. Enormous amounts of money, largely unaccounted and illegitimate, are spent on each election. Many elected officials then abuse the system to recover this “investment” by diverting public funds. With every election, the players may change, but the rules of the game don’t, and the vicious cycle of corruption continues unchecked. Lok Satta advocates changes in the rules of this political game.
Because of its focus on systemic changes and non-partisan approach, it has few enemies, and has found support even among politicians. In Andhra Pradesh it has a strong base of citizen groups that work on local issues. A U.S.-based non-profit organization, Foundation for Democratic Reforms in India (FDRI) partners with Lok Satta, providing financial support and research and analysis of democratic models worldwide.
“There is no cause for despair,” Narayan asserts optimistically, pointing out the remarkable progress in just the last 15 months: complete disclosure of criminal records, assets and liabilities, and educational qualifications of political candidates; the far-reaching campaign finance reforms enacted last year; tightening of anti-defection provisions; limiting the council of ministers to 15 percent of the membership of the lower house; changes in elections to the Rajya Sabha.
Yet, this is only the beginning. Narayan enumerates Lok Satta’s priorities for the future: decentralization of power to the local level; reform of the judiciary; democratization of political parties; separation of the executive and legislative branches at the state level; proportional representation. Most importantly, an awareness that people are in control, and their elected officials are accountable to them.
The people of India are taking the initiative to reform the largest democracy. Indian-Americans can pitch in too by supporting Lok Satta (www.loksatta.org) and FDRI (www.fdri.org).