On Political Participation & Participatory Democracy
Sidney Verba and Norman Nie (both Fabian Socialist scholars) define political participation as, “those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of government personnel and/or the actions they take.” This definition is broad in that it takes into account many activities beyond voting in elections, including being active in organizations, working on campaigns, contacting officials, attending political meetings, and being a member of a political organization. Other scholars adopt broader definitions. For example, Lester Milbrath incorporates passive behaviour (i.e., taking part in ceremonial activities), some psychological orientations (i.e., becoming informed about politics), and protests and demonstrations.
Milbrath (1965) was the first to argue that political participation follows a hierarchical structure in that individuals who engage in activities at the top level also engage in activities at lower levels. The bottom rung includes those who do not engage in any type of activity. The “spectator” level consists of activities such as voting, exposure to political stimuli, and talking to others about politics. The “transitional” level includes attending meetings, donating money, or contacting an official. And the “gladiator” engages in activities such as running for office, soliciting funds, and working on a campaign.
Another way to look at the various types of participatory actions is with respect to the level of input required from citizens, the type of information the act conveys to leaders, and how much pressure they place on policy-makers to pay attention. Working on a campaign and directly contacting officials requires a great deal of initiative, while activities like voting do not entail as much time or energy. Direct contact sends a clear message to leaders about a citizen’s preferences, whereas voting only conveys an ambiguous message. Finally, activities vary with respect to the pressure they put on leaders, with voting exerting a high degree of pressure since electoral support is necessary for re-election.
Participatory democracy or deliberative democracy is a political instrument which guarantees participation to citizens. The word participatory discloses the core meaning of popular sovereignty as self-government. In the original ancient Greek meaning, demo-kratia (“rule of the demes,”) entailed engaged citizenship and regular participation. In modern times, however, when democracy has become associated more closely with representation, accountability, and a form of indirect government in which the people select the rulers rather than ruling themselves, participatory democracy has come to be seen as an alternative form of democracy. Consequently participatory, or direct or “strong,” democracy and representative democracy have evolved into conceptual antonyms: two fundamentally distinctive forms of democracy rooted in contrary understandings of popular sovereignty as direct self-rule by the people and indirect rule by “circulating elites” chosen by the people, who otherwise remain outside government.
In principle all democracy is to a certain extent participatory. Every democratic system is rooted in an act of original consent through a popularly ratified social contract or constitution as well as ongoing popular input in the form of periodic elections. To this extent, to say that democracy is consensual is to say that it is participatory. In the modern era, however, participatory democracy implies much more than original consent or periodic elections. It denotes extensive and active engagement of citizens in the governing process, often through participatory devices such as initiatives and referenda, and emphasizes the role of the citizen as an active agent in self-legislation and a real stakeholder in governance.
Classical participatory democrats agreed that popular passions had to be filtered if popular government was to succeed, but they believed that the filter should be within the heads of citizens, and that entailed intensive citizen education. For the participatory or strong democrat, democracy means the government of citizens rather than merely the government of the people. In this formulation citizens are as far from ordinary people as public-thinking and civic-minded communitarians are from self-absorbed, narcissistic consumers of government services.
It is here that participatory democracy can be associated closely with deliberative democracy. To act as a citizen is not merely to voice private interests; it is to interact and deliberate with others in search of common ground and public goods. The aim of participation is not merely to express interests but to foster deliberation and public-mindedness about interests. When Jefferson suggested that the remedy for the ills of democracy was more democracy, he intimated that democracy was deliberative and involved learning. Modern experiments in deliberative democracy such as those of James Fishkin (1991) have demonstrated that citizens can change their minds and become more open to public goods when exposed to deliberative procedures.
Grassroot Democracy under Decentralization Principle
The Preamble to the Constitution of India acknowledges the ultimate, supreme and sovereign power of the people. In accordance with the basic philosophy of the Constitution, the creation of people’s power is one of the primary tasks of nation-building. This is possible only when the citizens have an active role in the formulation, implementation as well as monitoring of policies and programs related to their development. Citizen’s participation is thus an essential ingredient of a democratic system. Given the vastness of the country and its far-reaching diversities, effective participation is possible only when the process of governance is adequately decentralized and democratized. Local self-government is part and parcel of this process of democratization and decentralization. A genuine democracy implies a bottom-upwards pattern of power-sharing and not a top-downwards pattern.
The Constitution (74th) Amendment Act ushered in third generation grassroot level local self government in the form of Municipalities during the year 1992. The 74th Amendment Act provisions allow for strengthening the capability of municipal governments. The main areas to which attention has been given are: constitution of three types of municipalities; regular and fair conduct of municipal elections; representation of weaker sections and women in municipal governments through reservation of seats; devolution of greater powers and functions to municipalities; constitution of state finance commissions; constitution of ward committees, metropolitan planning committees and district planning committees. The Act sought to introduce uniform structures all over the country and made it mandatory for all the states to adopt it within a definite time period. The initiative slipped out of the hands of the states. It is commonly believed that this change was a consequence of political design emanating from the top and the demands of party functionaries at the bottom.
The Government of Manipur introduced the Manipur Municipalities Act 1994 for the urban areas. However, the new set of institutions has come in for lot of criticism. There is a widespread perception that the structure is without adequate strength to enable it to function properly. There is a dearth of functions, functionaries and finances to make the new generation of political institutions effective agencies of self-governance. Lack of political will is another bottleneck. It is also believed that Municipalities continue to be extension departments of higher levels of administration. Service delivery has become the major preoccupation of these bodies which has obstructed initiative at the local level. Rampant corruption is another bane of these grass root democratic bodies. Critics have also questioned the democratic nature of the emerging institutions, pointing out that the new leadership has further strengthened entrenched interests in the villages under a new garb.
Of no less concern is the rigid and uncooperative attitude of local level administration which stunts a free play of democratic mobilization at the local level. It has also been pointed out that leadership by proxy has hampered the rise of socially deprived groups for whom reservation had been provided. Many such problems have prevented the emergence of Municipalities as effective agencies of local level democratic self-governance.
Manipur Municipality Community Participation Bill 2010: Problem Areas
The proposed enactment of Manipur Municipality Community Participation Bill, 2010 is to institutionalize citizen’s participation and introduce the concept of the Area Sabha in administration of Urban Local Bodies which is a part of Mandatory Reforms as per the Memorandum of Agreement signed between the Government of Manipur and the Government of India, Ministry of Urban Development for the implementation of JnNURM.
Some concern areas of the Bill are as follows (an updated version shall be posted in the next edition):
(Chapter II) - Ward Development Committee - Constitutional and governance of ward development committee: 3(2). Each Ward Development Committees shall consist of a). the Councillor of the ward, who shall be the Chairperson of the Ward Development Committee; b). two persons to be elected from the ward; c). Two persons representing the civil society from the ward, nominated by the state Government. The expression civil society as given in the Bill includes trade and commerce bodies. Secondly, there is no reservation of seats for women. Possibility of “circulating elites” continuing in positions of power cannot be sidelined.
Chapter-III - Rights and duties of Ward Development Committee: Regarding land use and urbane development there is no clause which specifies that the community should be consulted, other than getting instrumental consent from the concerned parties. There is no provision which states that financial position, expenditure and accountability of the WDC should be made public other than ensure optimal collection of all revenue sources.
In spite of the stated aims and objectives, the biggest lacuna of the Bill is the modality as how to ensure participation of the community e.g. how to transform “spectators” into “transitional” and “gladiators” in the words of Lester Milbrath.
This article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday, September 26, 2010