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By Mazher Hussain

Even 75 years after adopting a Constitution that declares India as a democratic republic, the people of India continue to operate with the attitude of ‘subjects’ and have not developed the mindset of ‘citizens’. From poor to rich and illiterate to educated, whenever we engage with the government for any service, it is with folded hands before elected representatives and officials – like in the era of Maharajas – and not as citizens vested with the right to participate in decision-making in public affairs and to be served by the establishment as a matter of right.

Rights turn Favours

Once the citizens cast their vote they seem to lose the right to take any decisions about any public matters and provisioning of the most basic services like water and sanitation to all other development programmes seems obtainable only as favours – to be received from those in authority – on the basis of our community, caste, language, etc, instead of being available equally to all as entitlement due to citizens.

In such a situation, it is the elected representatives who come to decide everything – from provision of basic amenities and short listing of beneficiaries of welfare schemes to opening up the areas to deforestation and mining.

Decentralisation of Decision-making

But this violates the very core of the Constitution of India that clearly aspires for decentralisation of governance and greater participation of people as laid down in Article 243 and the 73rd and 74th Amendments dealing with panchayats and municipalities to “enable them to function as institutions of self-government and …for preparation of plans for economic development…social justice and implementation of schemes…”

If Article 243 is implemented in letter and spirit then common people would be able to decide about all civic amenities, selection of eligible candidates for welfare schemes and preparation of the development plans for their areas. This would mean that most of the requirements of the lives of people could be decided by the people themselves.

In such a scenario, the role of the elected representatives and government officials would be limited to just the implementation of decisions taken by the people and not to take the decisions themselves! The only requirement to ensure this is proper constitution and functioning of Gram and Area Sabhas. But unfortunately, political leaders from all parties are subverting the Constitution of India by preventing the proper functioning of Gram and Area Sabhas and thereby usurping the powers over governance processes at all levels that is totally unconstitutional.

Subject Mindset, Politics of Hate

As accessing the resources of the state is seen as dependent on securing favours from those in power and not as a citizenship right, people start voting leaders to power purely on considerations of who could secure them maximum favours. What could influence a leader in position of power to favour one person instead of another could be some commonality of identity – be it religion, caste, ethnicity, language, region etc. But the only genuine political identity in a democracy can be that of citizenship and of equality of all citizens. It is when these non-political identities acquire political centrality and start determining electoral preferences, it leads to politics of identity and promotes sectarianism.

In an atmosphere of identity and sectarian politics, political leaders also seek to sharpen differences to consolidate people with particular identities behind them for electoral benefit. The best way to sharpen identities is through the use of sectarian violence and so riots are mostly engineered a little before elections to reap maximum electoral gains.

Equal Entitlements

If India is to become a genuine democracy, then the foremost requirement would be the realisation and practice by its people that they are no longer subjects but citizens with equal entitlements.

Second, the only valid and permissible political identity can be that of citizenship and all other identities like religion, language, region etc also need space and nurture but should not be treated as political identities due to the imminent danger of leading to sectarian politics and violence for electoral gains.

Finally, the quality of any democracy is defined by the degree of participation by its people that is directly proportional to the degree of decentralisation already envisioned and amply provided by the Constitution of India.

The Challenge

Will the people of India accept themselves and all other Indians as equal citizens; citizenship as the only permissible political identity; and their constitutional duty to participate in decision-making on public affairs – or just hoist the national flag twice a year to delude themselves that they are independent and a democracy?

(The author is Executive Director of COVA and can be reached at [email protected])

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Author: Howard Caldwell