Arvind Kejriwal’s first shot at participatory democracy through a Janata Durbar to hear and address people’s problems might have begun in failure. A rattled Kejriwal has now junked the Janata Durbars, perhaps prematurely. An important distinction needs to be made between an idea and its execution. Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party’s initial response on Saturday was to reaffirm their faith in the idea of participatory democracy even while admitting that they had not gauged the overwhelming response and consequent melee at the Janata Durbar. In fact, Kejriwal can take heart from the good turnout at the event. It underscores the grievances people harbour against an unresponsive bureaucracy and the hopes they vest in the electoral process and political representatives. Among the petitioners were those complaining of unresolved issues involving various state departments and municipal bodies and, ironically, even government workers seeking regularisation of contract jobs.
Those critical of the Janata Durbar have asked Kejriwal and team to get on with the job of governance instead of wasting time on the streets. Others have slammed the effort as populism with an eye on votes. But the idea is neither novel nor untested. In Kerala, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy owes his political survival — despite facing bruising allegations in the “solar” scam – to his immensely popular mass contact programmes held regularly in each of the 14 districts in the state. Orders issued by the Chief Minister have provided much succour to those seeking financial help to repay loans and get medical treatment, landless households, farmers who lost their crops due to inclement weather, and a host of other issues which would otherwise have required endless rounds of village, block, district and state government offices. The Chief Minister is aided by a bevy of bureaucrats, party workers, and state ministers who also attend to the grievances and make notes to help Chandy take a quick on-the-spot decision. Perhaps, Kejriwal could have taken a leaf out of Chandy’s book and organised the Janata Durbars at stadiums and in a district-wise manner.
While these mass contact programmes and Janata Durbars become a forum for redress of individual grievances rather than larger civic, social or public problems, the complaints can help point to critical lacunae in governance or help devise new work flows and processes in government that cuts red tape. For a party committed to bottom-up approaches, the objective should be to initiate systemic reform rather than alleviate individual problems. When governance improves, complaints should reduce. That the AAP’s approach to governance was in sync with people’s aspirations is evident from the tremendous response to its anti-corruption helpline. For a change, a government has viewed corruption as its problem rather than the people’s. How the AAP government acts on the bona fide phone calls it received and takes exemplary action against officials demanding bribe could provide a model for the rest of India to act on.
At the heart of participatory democracy is the decentralisation of governance. This will involve taking people into confidence regarding developmental activities in their neighbourhood and enabling them to take decisions. Post-independent India has been inevitably drifting towards empowering the citizen through legislations that recognised panchayati raj institutions (73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1993), the extension of panchayats to scheduled areas (PESA Act, 1996), and the rights-based legislations for information, education, employment, land acquisition and forest-dwellers. What was missing was a political party overtly pushing the participatory agenda; the AAP seems to be filling this space that other parties missed out on.