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People's Movement for Inclusive Democracy


People’s Movement, a Quest for Inclusive Democracy?

India has made a departure from ‘benefits of growth’ and ‘trickle down’ to ‘inclusive growth’. Thanks to the Panchayati Raj, the country is also moving towards inclusive governance

Churchill defined democracy as “the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” Democracy, the least bad system, has been the flavour of the 21st century. According to Amartya Sen, “democracy remains the only system of government that commands global respect.” Ironically, democracy is in trouble in many places, even as its triumph is proclaimed. There is a lot of backsliding in a number of electoral democracies as well as setbacks in countries that experienced democratic revolutions following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Larry Diamond, author of The Spirit of Democracy, calls it “democracy recession.” There is also consolidation of dictatorships among authoritarian rulers wary of democratic advance in their neighbourhoods. Even though democracy is not yet ‘sell-by-date’, we may have progressed democratically but democracy is regressing.

Pitfalls of Representative Democracy

The dominant oligarchic system of representative democracy cannot be equated with democracy itself. Many democracies have simply become Polyarchies. One of the major problems with representative democracy is that the business of government has become the privilege of the few. Representative democracy emerged in the 19th century in countries that had experienced an industrial revolution. Given the context of unprecedented production levels, representative democracy came to symbolise development and progress. The experience suggests that instead of becoming a bridge between state and society, representative democracy has practically become statist which ends up excluding the vast majority of the population from political power. Representative democracy is leading to oligarchisation of political system.

What we see today is the historical conflict between the autonomy/democratic tradition and the heteronomy tradition. The fundamental aim of those inspired by the autonomy/democratic tradition is the equal distribution of all forms of power, particularly the political and economic power, whereas the aim of the heteronomy tradition is to produce and reproduce forms of social organisation based on the concentration of power.

Of course there have been efforts to reform representative democracy. But this reform has meant what Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa says “changing everything so that it can stay the same.” In fact, what needs to be done is to question it. That is the only way we don’t lose it. Representative democracy institutionally stifles political participation. Democracy should not mean only voting. It is a poor substitute for democracy which requires direct action by concerned citizens.

In the present age of hyper-information communications have changed. The way citizens connect themselves with each other has also changed. Social networks have allowed social dialogue to become more horizontal. It has endowed the public with the power to decide on what is germane to their lives. Social movements have come to renew the concept of citizen participation.

Democracy today has more stakeholders than ever before. It is expanding beyond nation-state and is becoming more inclusive and participatory. Democracy has become the politics of everyday life. It is concerned with problems closely related to people’s daily lives—primary education, health, livelihood etc. More importantly, politics of everyday life is rooted in civil society. Inclusive democracy is a process and framework in order to include women and marginal social groups in a democratic dialogue and process. This is what has been called ‘politics of difference’.

Inclusive Democracy

The gradual shift from representative to participatory democracy is there for all to see. Suddenly, new actors have appeared on the political scene. There has been a displacement of power upward (transnational networks, international organisations and big global companies), downward (local governance institutions) and outward (communities and non-profit organisations, NGOs and civil societies). A new geometry of power is shaping up and a new ‘geography of below’ is emerging. The new pyramid of democracy has three distinct features. First, we see a new phenomenon of empowered citizens and weakened leaders. Second, the public space is emptying at the top and filling up at the bottom. Third, there is withering away of institutional politics and the dominance of day-to-day concerns.

With governance moving beyond governments, power that is being created in and amongst people by the new social movements is not located in the state or in formal institutions of power. What these movements are creating are new and different forms of power. It is living and changing power, it is power as potential and capacity.

Whether it is Africa, Latin America or Asia, the poor and the marginalised people are rising up, challenging the system that has kept them poor and pursuing a new course. In Latin America, for instance, most democratic and social advances are not the result of official policies but of social movements harnessing their own power. Social movements have been successful in putting issues on the national political agenda.

Social inclusion is the new buzzword in much of the developing world. It encompasses not just the reduction of economic inequality but also civil and political rights, greater political representation and voice for minorities and access to public and private goods. Social inclusion requires both economic development and a proactive state.

Inclusion is a crucial instrument in maintaining high levels of commitment to democracy but also in ensuring the legitimacy of democracy itself. The World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995 sought to define inclusive society as a ‘society for all’ in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play. By this definition, few societies are inclusive.

An inclusive society is the one where voices of people and their needs and concerns are heard. An inclusive society cannot be created just through constitutional endowments. It is important to ensure that citizens and civil society participate meaningfully. Inclusive democracy is a form of organisation that re-integrates society with economy, polity and culture. Representation at different political levels, equal rights to all groups of citizens and redistributive justice are the three key ingredients of inclusive democracy.

Empowerment of indigenous groups in Latin America

The indigenous people in Latin America remained on the margin for centuries. Their experience with liberal democracy and neo-liberalism was one of systematic exclusion and dispossession. Globalization only further worsened their condition as the development model that governments followed were based on agreements among nation-states, corporations and financial institutions without the inputs and consent of civil society. National governments took upon themselves to negotiate natural resources on the international market with little concern about whether these resources were on indigenous lands. The structural policies that various governments followed meant moving economies back to reliance on raw materials.

The social movements in Latin America have sought to create a new narrative for the indigenous groups, challenging long held assumptions and previous representations of culture, history, race, gender, citizenship and identity. Re-envisioning the past has served to incorporate previously marginalised peoples including indigenous, Afro-descendants, peasants, women and others who were historically on the margins. The right to be heard, to be seen, to be recognised, and to be respected are at the core of new movements. It has given a new meaning to democracy.

The citizens movement has brought about significant change in the architecture of the state. At least three Latin American countries—Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador now have new constitutions that have conferred significant rights on the indigenous and others on the margins. The political system has opened more channels for the citizens’ participation through constitutional mechanisms.

Environmental protection and the struggle over natural resources have long been of major concern for indigenous peoples all over Latin America. Exclusion of indigenous peoples in policy making and water management practice has led to widespread protests throughout the Andes. Massive uprisings against privatization proposals of water rights and resources put indigenous demands on the agenda. The traditional struggle for more equal land distribution has been accompanied or replaced by collective claims for more equal water distribution, and for more autonomy and respect for local cultural practices.

In Bolivia, for example, the process that succeeded the so-called “water wars” received international attention. In 2000, the streets of Cochabamba filled with farmers, indigenous groups, and poor city dwellers protesting against privatization of the drinking water company. The urban population was furious because of a huge rise in drinking water prices. Alongside the poor urban population sectors, peasant and indigenous rural organizations joined the protest. The new policies gave water exploitation rights of large rural aquifers to the new foreign drinking water company, threatening local water management systems. After a number of fierce confrontations, also in subsequent years, the protesting organizations successfully demanded withdrawal of the privatization policies.

The new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia describe the two countries as plurinational states. They allow the participation of all the social sectors and groups and guarantee some specific rights to the indigenous nationalities. Thanks to empowerment, the indigenous people in Ecuador and Bolivia are well-organised at the grassroots, regional and national levels. They are demanding better access to land, autonomy, basic services, environmental protection and political representation.

Ecuador is the first country to incorporate rights of Nature in the constitution. Nature has “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution.”

Non-Violence - a Key Weapon

Over the past decade, the indigenous movements have gained traction. The movements may be new but the struggle is old. It stands firmly in the tradition of human rights movements led by the most oppressed: the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the Independence movement in India and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.

Another interesting development has happened which has bolstered social movements. Peaceful movements have played a significant role in overthrowing dictatorial regimes. It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.

It was not the 11 weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. It was a nonviolent resistance movement led by young students, whose generation had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against neighbouring Yugoslav republics, and who were able to mobilize a large cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.

It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and township dwellers who—through the use of strikes, boycotts, the creation of alternative institutions, and other acts of defiance—made it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.

It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish dockworkers, East German church people, Estonian folk singers, Czech intellectuals, and millions of ordinary citizens. Similarly, such leaders as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Moussa Traoré in Mali, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia, and, most recently, Maumoon Gayoom in the Maldives were forced to cede power when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of massive nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation.

Social movements have challenged the unequal state of the world and lack of accountability in Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Spain, Ireland, US, Canada and Latin America. The Arab Spring was the result of new social actors, mostly youth, both educated and connected through mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook etc. The protesters came on to the street against old and tired corrupt regimes that were captured by authoritarian leaders and their families and inner circles.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the situation now seems fluid, ranging from promising transition in some countries to ongoing violence and killing in Syria. The balance sheet of the Arab Spring is a mixed bag. Thanks to the social movements, a new political culture has emerged: people who disagree with the government and take to the streets have no reverence for established power. The wall of fear has collapsed. If the house wall is brought down, one can rebuild the house. But one can never build the wall of fear.

Debt crisis in southern Europe has given birth to a new civil society. It has been two years since the Indignados (Outraged) took over public squares in various parts of Spain to protest against the economy being run for the benefits of the banks and not the people. Given the lack of accountability in the political process, social movements are finding creative ways to give voice to those suffering from the crisis. The entire economic model stands discredited. According to El Pais, 260,000 people between 16 and 30 left Spain in 2012. The Youth Without Future group is collecting portraits of these young Spaniards, holding up signs detailing their stories of unemployment, exile and insecurity under the slogan “We didn’t leave; they threw us out.”

The Indignados not only protested against the crisis but also demanded Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now). The experience of Spain, Greece and elsewhere in southern Europe suggests a pattern—social deprivation coupled with a democratic process that most people feel alienated from is a recipe for social unrest.

Interestingly, the entire mobilisation campaign in Europe has been very inclusive. A broad consensus has been reached regarding a few basic aspects of the plan. The intention is not so much to strike out at the powerful as it is to isolate them and to build bonds with average people rather than with those who pull strings.

The social movements across the world have been remarkable for having transformed the silent frustration and rage of millions of ordinary citizens into a powerful collective condemnation of the political/economic status quo. Across the world, small numbers of protesters have made a big noise about the evils of capitalism but also pitfalls of representative democracy. The protests have occurred in spaces where people did not belong, say in plazas (New York), church steps (London) and shopping malls (Madrid) where protesters had no right to assemble. The credit goes to the Occupy Movement for dramatizing questions about public space—who owns it? Who can use it?

The movement must have an agenda. After all, the indigenous groups in Latin America and Canada have not stopped at mere protests. It is ‘protest with proposal’ where positive alternatives have been suggested. They have come out with their own reform proposals. The Indignados of Spain are developing a new constitution. Iceland’s social movements have revolutionalised their government following the 2008 economic collapse. The present network of outrage must become a network of hope.

India an Inclusive Democracy?

Has Indian democracy underperformed? Or have we expected too much from our democracy? We could have done better. But have we fared too badly? At one level, we have reduced our democracy to a never-ending belittling scrap to the detriment of governments and governance. We may be discussing ‘your corruption is bad and mine is good’. But we have not thrown democracy to the dustbin. The Indian democracy is of course not perfect. In fact, the idea of perfect democracy seems absurd. Democracies exist in a constant state of tension and incompleteness.

India is moving in the direction of being an inclusive democracy. India has begun to rise from below. The Panchayati Raj has begun to change the grammar of politics. Institutional innovation is name of the game. The empowerment of historically disadvantaged groups like women, SCs/STs in the PRIs has gone a long way to deepen democracy. Inclusion is a crucial instrument in maintaining high levels of commitment to democracy but also in ensuring the legitimacy of democracy itself. The rationale for empowering women, SCs and STs is compelling: it promotes growth, reduces poverty and leads to better governance. Besides, equity is not a question of numbers but of democratic principle. Of course, a series of policy interventions may be required to improve inclusion and spread benefits more equitably.

India needs to create social citizenship which is the material preconditions for effectively participating in society. As long as the disadvantaged, minorities and the Adivasis feel ‘othered’, their democratic citizenship will remain at risk. In terms of access to and control over land and other productive resources, the poor, Dalits, women and Adivasis have a long way to go. At least in terms of policy formulations, India has made a departure from ‘benefits of growth’ and ‘trickle down’ to ‘inclusive growth’. Thanks to the Panchayati Raj, the country is also moving towards inclusive governance.

Ash Narain Roy; The author is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, holds a doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, specializes in Indian politics, foreign affairs, and in particular Latin American issues. He was a visiting scholar at the prestigious EI Colegio de Mexico and has been given several awards and fellowships, including as first recipient of the Appan Menon Memorial Award


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