Editorial: From Representative to Participatory

Since politics is in the air

Sikkim has been enjoying representative democracy for a little over four decades now, and it is time that this structure was reinforced further with a more participatory form of democracy. It is time not only because democracy has matured in the eight Assembly elections the people have participated in, but also because there are too many conflicting ideas being thrown up which can be addressed only if the people invest involvement in democracy beyond the casting of votes. And the timing is also apt because with elections barely eight months away, the air is already thick with politics. But what is participatory democracy all about? Essentially, it involves informing, discussing and listening. These are actually prerequisites of a democracy, but most tend to end their participation with the ballot. Voting is admittedly a good habit, and Sikkim continues to set new records in as far as electoral participation is concerned, but democracy requires more. While elected leaders are fine for governance, when tricky issues need to be resolved, the people have to increase their involvement. It is however not easy for the people to set up such engagements on their own. And this is where the role of the elected representatives becomes more important - they have to initiate the process of participatory democracy. And this has to be more nuanced and refined than the mad scramble of mohallah sabhas that AAP briefly experimented with in Delhi. Even Sikkim used to have janta darbars at one time, but it quickly became clear that these were becoming more about individual complaints and grievances than community or wider issues. But if people were to find platforms and organizations through which they could express more meaningfully and coherently and with wider consensus on issues which babus or politicians would rather not take a call on their own, there would be fewer instances of inspired conspiracy theories to confuse and confound every one. It serves the purpose of elected representatives to know where the people stand on different issues and also because then they can truly understand the aspirations of the people and act accordingly. By doing so, they not only serve the people better but also secure their own political futures more resolutely. The task is not easy though; the public does not and will not speak in one voice, but with many voices, raising different demands. And while a multitude of demands is not a problem, conflicting demands and conflicting interests pose a problem. Within any area there are many communities and with every issue, there are many lines of conflict. What the mediator has to look for is the other common factor – the lines of cooperation and begin the process from there. The development of participatory democracy, if successful, would extend the range of voices beyond those normally heard. The importance of discussion in participatory democracy is to establish awareness about different positions, to test them against each other and against wider concerns and to see whether, through discussion, new positions can be reached which, even if they cannot reconcile differences, at least explore how far they can be accommodated. It is the responsibility of elected representatives to aid this process and in the end, if required, balance, mediate and judge the differing views. Of course, the people can side-step even such supervision by ensuring that they behave even when they disagree, disapprove or dislike. Ideally, such engagements are moderated by civil society organizations, but since Sikkim still awaits such groups, it will have to be the elected leaders who step up and initiate. Politicians are taking initiative, but at present, it is only to serve their own ambitions. We still don’t have leaders supporting deliberations of the more unbiased kind. And Sikkim is the poorer for it. But if more leaders found the courage to support discussions without any preconditions, they will be participating in a healthy engagement and a welcome change from their usual responses which is to please and placate the people, but never, at least not so far, to engage them.