Citizens’ Common Cause

By Inder Jit

(Released on 4 September 1979)

In the backdrop of the churnings in the society we are witnessing, it appears that times have barely changed, whether under one government or another. The article threw up ideas what we could do as citizens. Indeed, food for thought.

Revulsion against the current state of politics in the country continues to snowball. Never before has greater contempt and abuse been poured on politicians. A few persons have even mildly reproached me for being “soft” towards politicians and describing all that has happened during the past two months as no more than “the politics of the gutter.” Complained a respected elder: “You have been unfair to the gutter. It is a lot cleaner.” Disgust with the developments has unfortunately tended to create widespread cynicism. Most people see nothing but trouble and travail ahead and a dark, forbidding future. Not a few have panicked and even bewail: Dictatorship is perhaps our only answer.” Things, however, are not so bad and without hope. In fact, some good may well come out of the evil that has transpired. Happily, 1979 is not 1977. Many citizens are no longer merely angry. They are awake and aroused — and anxious to do their best to stem the rot.
Much of the trouble has arisen because good people have largely shunned politics over the past two decades and more. “Politics is dirty, terribly dirty” has been the patent excuse. Even persons who could spare time from their successful careers have stayed away on the familiar plea: “There is no place for honest people. We will not last 24 hours.” Many are, however, beginning to realize now that politics has turned dirty and is certain to become dirtier so long as good persons do not actively participate in national affairs. Time was when following independence Nehru inducted men of acknowledged ability into the Congress with a view to improving the quality of public life. But things greatly changed after the first decade. The professional politician took over and today some 10,000 men and women comprising India’s new feudal lords are holding the country to ransom and playing ducks and drakes with its life like the Pindaris of yester centuries.
Can something be done by the ordinary citizens to mend matters and, what is more, to prevent India from going over the brink? Some fifty persons committed to democracy and hailing from different disciplines of life met over the last week-end at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi and came up with an answer which deserves widest possible notice and consideration. Yes, they deserve widest possible notice and consideration. Yes, they concluded, the people could rectify matters. The forthcoming general election offered both a challenge and an opportunity. But little could be achieved “merely by complaining about the behavior of the politicians” who had wantonly destroyed the 1977 spirit of democratic resurgence. The citizens could bring about a change. But they had first to acknowledge and appreciate two basic truths. Every people got the Government they deserved. Moreover, the citizens themselves had contributed to the present state of affairs. They needed to realize their own responsibility and learn from the experience of the past two and a half years.
Fortunately, the group, which included representatives of the Citizens for Democracy, Lok Sevak Sangh, Sarva Seva Sangh and the National People’s Committee, and some independents, did not stop at merely offering a homely. Instead, it put forward a programme of action to involve the people and help “secure the return of better representatives to Parliament.” Specifically, it proposed the establishment in all constituencies of the Voters’ Councils consisting of persons “of democratic convictions who do not belong or owe allegiance to any political party and will not run for office.” Such Councils should principally seek to “strengthen democracy (Political, economic and social) and oppose all authoritarian forces and parties and extra-constitutional tendencies.” The voters, it was agreed, should be cautioned against yielding to “the blandishment of potential dictators” and convinced that “democracy, however, defective it may appear to them, was a better form of Government than dictatorship.”
The Voters’ Council will have important functions to perform. Before and during the poll, it would do the following: help eligible voters to enroll. Call upon the people to secure the return of persons of moral integrity who would place public interest above private advantage. Defeat defectors and other guilty of betraying the people’s trust or of unethical conduct. Assist voters to exercise their franchise rationally, without yielding to considerations of caste and community. Help secure free and fair elections. Prepare, circulate and monitor a code of conduct and secure pledges for future action. After the poll, the Voter’s Council would function as a standing organization to maintain a two-way contact between the voters and their elected representatives and the Government. It would also demand, among other things, legislation on electoral reforms and setting up of a Lok Pal.
Some of the participants pointedly raided a question of vital concern to the future of our democracy. Should the Voters’ Council also set up their own candidates? “What happens,” It was asked for instance, “If the candidates in any constituency lack integrity and character — or commitment to democracy? Should not the Voters’ Council itself offer an alternative candidate? Understandably, no one was in favour of doing anything which might give the impression as though a new party was being launched. However, a practical compromise was stuck. It was agreed that the Voters’ Council should also assist “processes resulting in the emergence of the peoples’ candidates who may be adopted if the local constituents so desire. But this was subject to the provisos that such candidates will be locally sponsored, convinced democrats and genuinely non-party men and women of integrity. Further, they will have a good chance of success, and will agree not to run for office or defect and to remain accountable to the Council.
Public effort at ensuring the success of good candidates at the polls is not new and has, in fact, yielded good dividends in the West. In the USA for instance, public interest groups wield enormous influence and play a major role in pushing legislation and getting law-makers elected. (A public-interest group or a “citizens lobby” is broadly defined as a group organized around ideas that are not based on their members’ economic interest). There are literally thousands of such public interest groups; a directory of these groups published in 1977 ran into 999 pages. Their membership is largely college-educated and from the middle and upper income brackets. The groups come into being in numerous ways — by capitalizing on a hot public issue, by being bank rolled by wealthy individuals or by raising funds from the public or from foundations. Not a day goes by when one group or another does not testify before the Congress on causes that may range anywhere from Congressional ethics to Pentagon waste.
Common Cause, a leading public interest group, for instance, concentrates on the political process and is determinedly pursuing its goal: to make the US system responsive and accountable. Following its inception in 1970, Common Cause began a quite revolution in American electoral politics and by 1977 had successfully lobbied for two major election reforms, including limited funding of Presidential elections with the aid of public reaction to the Watergate scandals. It has been busy making more ambitious efforts thereafter to transform the American system of campaign funding, provoked by two factors. First, money has become more important than merit. Second, successful candidates either required independent fortunes or became indebted to special interest. (In 1970, twenty millionaires ran for the Senate.) Two years ago, Common cause had a budget of 5.3 million dollars annually. Most of this came from the dues ($15 a year) of its 250,000 members.
Time alone will tell how far the new movement for more effective participation by our people in the electoral process through the Voters’ Council will succeed. One thing alone is clear. The task is stupendous, considering the vastness of the country. But it is not impossible provided those who have taken the initiative are able to back it up with effective action even in a hundred constituencies and successfully enthuse the common folk to join the new movement. Lack of funds is certain to create a handicap. However, this, too, need not prove insurmountable. The 1977 poll showed something which none could imagine earlier. Media is not necessarily the message. Indeed, message is the message. The people asserted themselves magnificently in 1977. There is no reason why they should not reassert themselves now when the danger ahead is no less. Ultimately, mere indignation, howsoever strong, will not do. Only, an organized popular effort can help clean up public life and save democracy. — INFA