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  • Anjana Benny

Towards a Democratic De-Election

The stage is set again, with the actors embracing their roles entwined with flavors of emotions, passions, promises and assertive words. The judges are spread throughout the gallery, relishing their ‘once in half a decade privilege’ of being the game-deciders. Rest of the country is unable to take the eyes off West Bengal, Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in this ongoing episode of political drama. It’s not too wrong to say that elections in India have the touch of a circus show, with its own extravaganza, spectacle and mockery.

With reference to the upcoming April 6th polling in Kerala, I came across a meme that turned out to be intriguing. It said, “You commit a mistake on April 1st, you get fooled for a day; you commit a mistake on April 6th, you get fooled for the upcoming five years.” But Jokes apart, isn’t this statement concomitantly suggesting that democracy in India is only and entirely about the right to vote available once in five years? Isn’t this also suggesting that, once we choose our representative we are obliged to tolerate him/her for the complete tenure of five years, no matter how he/she behaves once the power comes into possession? Lord Acton’s famous warning is worth quoting here, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The Democratic Mockery

The ideal answer to a myriad of questions which sprang up in the turn of history, with regard to decision making, government formation and institutional arrangements lies in one single word; ‘Democracy’. The idealism shielding democracy is so strong that, even a mere charge of being called ‘undemocratic’ is taken gravely now. It is hence not a distant fact that in this 21st century, democracy is the rule and the game, with more than half of the countries describing themselves as democratic, in one way or the other.

Democracy = Demos (people) + kratia (rule); which undoubtedly translates into ‘rule by the people’ or ‘self-rule’ (the focal point of Gandhiji’s ‘swaraj’). Anthony Arblaster describes democracy as ‘a situation where power and authority ultimately rest with the people’; thereby reflecting the concept of popular power. Athens, the birth-mother of democracy, nurtured it into one where all the citizens (except women, slaves and resident aliens) are equally engaged in the decision making process. Subsequently, due to the advent of new socio-political contexts coupled with a swelling population, democracy evolved into a novel strand: ‘representative democracy’, the form evident in India. The fundamental feature that bolsters the essential character of ‘democracy’ (which is, rule by the people, as opposed to rule by a handful number of people) in its ‘representative’ variant is the citizens’ right to vote; which is often characterized as the most efficacious democratic weapon possessed by the citizens. But our once-in-five-years pilgrimage to the voting booth seems more like a ‘mockery’ of what democracy should actually mean. Right to vote abruptly ends in a lacuna as citizens have no further options to ensure the accountability of their representatives once they grant them power.

This lacuna of helplessness is well-echoed in the following questions; What if the representatives become self-centric and not society-concerned? What if they care less about those citizens whom they represent? What if they fail to keep their promises? These ‘what-ifs’ eventually acquired flesh and blood through the incessant political scandals ranging from bofors, transgressing through the ‘coalgate’, 2G Spectrum, controversies spanning around the rafale, and ultimately in the ‘bro-code’ between the multi-billion corporates and politicians. The anguish in holding 86th rank in the corruption perception index 2020 explains how the current ruling dispensation failed to accomplish its anti-corruption claims, even though it came to power on the plank of a ‘Bhrashtachar mukt Bharat’. On the flip side, politicians are largely over-occupied with election promises like 500-square-feet homes for slum dwellers and 16% reservation for the Maratha communities, which often fail to weigh the realities of implementation, thereby leading the world’s largest democracy into an epoch of demagoguery. Moreover, those promises which seem to be rational and aspirational enough, and worthy of influencing citizens’ decisions, contrastingly slide down the priority-list, thereby unleashing further cleavages in the institution of democracy.

The plethora of setbacks mentioned above is predominantly due to the lack of checks and balances to keep the politicians accountable to their electorate, once they acquire power. Ironically, the solution also dates back to the ancient Athens.

The Right to Recall

Ancient Athens was also home to a unique social custom wherein a process of ostracism was held within a particular interval of time, as per the wishes of the citizens. This provided an occasion for the citizens to write down the names of those they wished to be ostracized, on shards of pottery. Officials counted the shards and whoever gets the substantial number of ostraka, finds themselves banned from the city for 10 years. This process could be alleged of lacking due process, fairness and the course of justice; but it cannot be overlooked as it successfully banished many would-be tyrants and individuals engaged in corruption.

Modern version of Right to Recall can be considered as an unswerving successor of Athens’ distinct custom. Right to recall is a condition wherein the voters seek to remove the elected representatives from their office through a direct vote before the completion of their tenure. Recall is a sine qua non for all forms of direct democracies. But the already mentioned shortcomings in an indirect democracy, opens up a new door of relevance for the recall provision in countries like India as well. Simply put, if the citizens have the power to elect their representatives, they also should have the power to dismiss them or ‘call them back’ if they engage in misdeeds or fail to fulfill their duties. Hence, logically speaking, right to vote and right to recall are supposed to be working together in mutual-cooperation. One is incomplete without the other.

Right to recall could prove to be a comprehensive solution as it can practically tackle most of the evident hindrances currently blocking the path of Indian democracy. It would entrust more power in the hands of citizens in order to ensure vertical accountability; criminalization of politics would essentially dwindle; election promises would be taken more earnestly; unfettered spending of money for election campaigns would be restrained and ultimately, representatives will always be responsible to those who they represent. Right to recall will enhance democracy as citizens would become increasingly vigilant and careful about the diligence of their leaders since they now acquire the power to kick them out if they fail to accomplish their duties.

Change Underway

Right to recall has been in place in Canada’s legislative assembly since 1955. The United States also acknowledges this entitlement in a few states, on grounds such as misconduct and malfeasance. Likewise, Venezuela and Switzerland among many other countries too recognize the recall provision.

As far as India is concerned, Recall is not an alien concept for us. The practice of “Rajdharma” which holds its roots way back to the Vedic period is an obvious ancestor of the modern-day recall. M.N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan were its later proponents, while JP went to the extent of commenting that, even though recall had no place in the Indian Constitution, in a democracy people always have an “unwritten right, which they can exercise if and when necessary”. It must also be emphasized that right to recall found a place in the constituent assembly debates as well. The idea was relinquished only because Indian democracy was at its infancy then.

The Right to Recall is abided in the local level bodies in states like Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and lately through the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Bill, 2020, in the state of Haryana as well. In terms of state assembly and union parliament elections, as of now Indian electorate does not have the reliability on recourse except for the provision of vacation under the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which does not satisfy the intent of recall.

Somanath Chatterjee, the former Lok Sabha speaker, was ambitious about the right to recall. Amendment bills for the purpose of accommodating recall provision were introduced in our highest democratic chamber, by C K Chandrappan and Varun Gandhi in 1974 and 2016 respectively. As was foreseeable, none of the attempts prevailed the trial. In fact it seems that the political class never had any genuineness in pushing for such a provision, as they themselves viewed it as an existential crisis for them, which in turn reflect the amount of irresponsibility among our legislators. It is heartbreaking to see that Indian democracy is still hesitant to mature into a participatory democracy.

Way Forward

I am neither undermining the practical predicaments, nor am I holding too much optimism on its ground reality. Unless and until sufficient safeguard mechanisms are employed, the right to recall would unfold unfortunate prospects of misuse. The criteria for recall, along with the margin of voters required to commence such a procedure should be defined precisely. The independence of elected representatives and the mandate of the citizens should maintain a flawless parity. The misuse of recall provision for petty political reasons should be prevented with required precautions.

The feasibility of holding recall elections in a country like India is also doubtful. But way back in 1951, when the poor and illiterate infant-democratic India faced its first test of democracy, the entire world was skeptical, terming it ‘the biggest gamble in history’. Contrary to the criticisms, Indian democracy prospered all throughout the decades to come. Today we stand in a quagmire, eye-to-eye with a menacing democratic crisis. To prevent Indian democracy from demising, to uphold the long cherished visions of our forefathers, we need to empower our citizens with enhanced power. To be a citizen in a democratic country which endorses self-rule is not effortless. Right to recall could hence prove to be a radical step forward, in order to arm-up the citizens so that we could rule ourselves.

Let’s not forget that “the degree of liberty or tyranny in any rule is a direct reflection of the relative determination of the people to be free and their willingness and capability to resist efforts to chain them.” The aspiration accompanying the right to recall is indeed high and it requires a higher level of socio-economic and educational equality to fulfill this vision; but we can at least strive to recognize its relevance, by paving the seeds of awareness and farsightedness towards a participatory democracy.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event. If we don’t participate in it, it ceases to be a democracy.” – Michael Moore

By Anjana Benny

The featured image first appeared on Flickr.


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