Democracy beyond elections – Part I

It’s election season in India, and it’s impossible to ignore the election juggernaut and all its related paraphernalia. Political parties have stepped up their campaigns to attract voters, and media channels relentlessly beam coverage of politicians and their every movement. Pundits and opinion polls have their predictions of who will win or lose. This is as good a time as any to reflect on whether we can build a successful democracy if we only keep ourselves updated about governance when the elections are around the corner.

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An ideal democracy needs citizens who are informed about the workings of government throughout its tenure. Indian voters were perhaps best known for their anti-incumbency voting, signifying their lack of faith in ruling parties but also their lack of ability as voters to demand more from their leaders. These trends might be slowly changing with the evolution of features like NOTA, the Right to Information Act, and an increase in media coverage of candidates and parties. We’re trying to do our bit as well! The Knowledge Centre conducted a series of email interviews with NGOs that work to increase transparency in the sphere of governance and help people become active citizens. First up is MumbaiVotes, an initiative of the Informed Voter Project. The Informed Voter Project set up MumbaiVotes in 2011. They seek to usher in a new age informed participation in democracy and public life in Mumbai and the democratic universe beyond. MumbaiVotes is a comprehensive transparency and accountability related portal designed to help citizens of Mumbai continuously monitor the performance of their Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and Corporators and their deliverance on promises. You can view their website here.

KC: What is your view on the state of governance in India? How do you think the relationship between voters and elected representatives (whether as individuals, parties or coalitions) has changed?

MV: It’s quite evident that the state of governance in India leaves a lot to be desired. Our feudal history implies that a large section of our people look at their MPs and MLAs as their ‘rulers’ as opposed to as their elected representatives.
What is positive, though, is that there is a steady improvement in the civic education levels – and in turn civic empowerment – of ordinary citizens over time and we believe that elected representatives and candidates are also learning to operate with these new circumstances.
As an example, at Mumbaivotes.com we regularly track MPLAD fund utilization for each of the elected MPs in Mumbai. This election, we had a few of our sitting MPs send us detailed records of the disbursement of these funds – which reflects their awareness of the new reality where voters actively seek relevant information to make a choice on who to vote for.

KC: Is information more accessible because of democracy and/or technology? Do you think technology has changed the way the system works?

MV: Definitely – Technology is a great driver for transparency and change. Mumbaivotes.com, for us, exemplifies the use of technology to make critical information on candidates & elected representatives more accessible. And technology does not solely imply the internet; for those of us in Mumbai without regular internet access we have created a set of IVR numbers where anyone can call up and listen to audio interviews of the candidates.

KC: What’s your vision of good citizenship and good leadership? Can you give examples of good citizens or good leaders from India or abroad? If you have a model do share with us.

MV: We believe that it is not sufficient to cast a vote, but the quality of that vote is equally (or perhaps more) important. In that sense, in a democracy, a good citizen is one who recognizes the personal responsibility of participating in the governance of his/her own community by voting – and further, keeps informed and updated on information relating to local candidates, to make an educated and objective decision on whom to elect.

KC: It’s been said that India is a democratic polity but not a democratic society. Do you believe this statement? What are its repercussions?

MV: One way to put it is that we are an evolving democracy, with many steps still to maturity. Transparency and open access to information is one positive driver. People taking responsibility to hold their government accountable and casting informed votes is another.

KC: Any trends in the current elections you’d like to comment on? Would voting be driven by a particular factor like the youth vote, job creation or the state of the economy. Which factor do you think will drive voting this time around?

MV: There has clearly been a massive increase in penetration of most communication forms – Media (Satellite TV), Mobile phones and the Internet. We now live in a country where 1 in 6 is an internet user, and 1 in 13 is a social media user. The number of Indians on these platforms has now reached a critical mass where political parties now pay significant attention to make their present felt on them.

The clear positive trend here is that there is more demand for accurate information on candidates and elected representatives – since this is now available to many more people – and accordingly we have witnessed that an the increase in usage of our website and other services.

KC: How do you think the internet has changed the way we access information?

MV: The internet provides us the luxury of being able to look for whatever information we need, whenever we need it. While the initial boom has been in commercial and social areas, we believe it is only a question of time before our civic and political domains are primarily online.

KC: What services do you provide for users or citizens?

MV: MumbaiVotes.com, is a unique portal that is a comprehensive library of Mumbai’s elected representatives and elections candidates. The portal features exclusive interviews, manifestos and analyses, details on questions asked and bills passed, comments made, promise kept/broken and updated information of all candidates contesting this year in Mumbai’s six constituencies.

KC: How do you want people to use your website/services?

MV: We would like voters to make an informed and educated choice on whom to vote for and we feel that we are providing an excellent tool to enable people to do so. We aim to be descriptive and not prescriptive and adhere to a strict code of political neutrality. Our information can be accesssed through any of these means:

– Website:
For Mumbai: www.mumbaivotes.com ; twitter: @mumbaivotes ; FB: /mumbaivotes
For Pune: www.punevotes.com
For the rest of India: www.myneta.info (run by our partner – ADR)

– Telephone:
For Mumbai: You can also dial the following IVR numbers to listen to audio clips of candidates from your area about their track record and agenda:
Mumbai North – 26 : +91 79309 18201
Mumbai North West – 27 : +91 79309 18202
Mumbai North East – 28 : +91 79309 18203
Mumbai North Central – 29 : +91 79309 18204
Mumbai South Central – 30 : +91 79309 18205
Mumbai South – 31 : +91 79309 18206

For the rest of India: DIAL *325*35#

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