Opinion

Re-engineering democracy for today

GB Prabhat | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on April 12, 2017

From the hotseat How democracy devolves. - RV Moorthy

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By launching a distinct e-governance initiative centred on online polls and powerful analytics, India can shine a light

It is common knowledge that there are two types of democracy: direct and indirect. A direct democracy does not award full governance powers to the government. Instead, using the mechanisms of referendum, recall, initiative and plebiscite, direct democracy allows the participation of every enfranchised citizen in approving many major governmental decisions.

An indirect democracy, on the other hand, vests elected representatives, who run the government under a leader, with vast powers to take decisions on behalf of its people. Only in the rarest of instances does an indirect democracy resort to a direct democracy mechanism like referendum to take a decision. Britain’s decision to exit the European Union was one such instance.

Anachronisms, adjustments

The historical justification for an indirect democracy is twofold. One, leadership is not the forte of everybody. Taking sound political decisions requires the collaboration of many kinds of deep expertise in subjects as varied as economics, finance and psychology, overseen by the definition-eluding leadership.

Two, it is unwieldy and cumbersome, if not impossible, to secure the vote of millions of people on every significant decision. While the first justification for an indirect democracy is still valid, the second is not.

Thanks to the power of the internet and associated information technologies (IT), the extant indirect democracy, specifically in populous countries like India, is now reduced to a quaint anachronism that has outlived its time. It needs to be seriously re-engineered to embrace select virtues of a direct democracy.

At the core

The core purpose of a democracy is to execute the will of its people. The internet and IT provide sophisticated tools to enable the core purpose. Central to the re-engineering of the current democracy would be the online poll.

Online polls may be used to collect authentic data from millions of people within a short time with barely any cost to the citizen and only an incremental increase in the IT budgets of the government. Such polls would help overcome the great limitation of the indirect democracy model in collecting reliable poll results in a short period of time from hundreds of millions of people. The polls could be conducted with security being provided for by a citizen id (the voter id or Aadhaar in India, the social security number in the US, for example).

Through four kinds of online polls, the direct democracy mechanisms of referendum, recall, plebiscite and initiative may be implemented:

Decision polls, which determine by majority vote whether or not a proposal should be implemented

Opinion polls, which provide opinion on specific matters (say, a proposed amendment to a law or the budgetary allocation for greening initiatives)

Sentiment polls, which gauge what the mood of the people is on the state of affairs

Election polls, which help elect the representatives of the people who would form the government

Sophisticated analytics (including predictive analytics and sentiment analysis) may then be used to engage in prospective governance (with a distinct and informed view of the future) rather than retrospective governance (based on an analysis of the past). Analytics facilitate the deployment of dashboards reflecting public opinion which in turn would lead to unprecedented transparency in governance.

Towards authenticity

The new democracy would enable greater inclusion, decision-making based on verified data rather than educated guesses or arcane statistical methods, and defeating mala fide intentions. Voter turnout is likely to be higher since the process of voting would not be as burdensome as going to a booth, and identity theft would be markedly lower than with voting booths. With no significant bureaucracy or onerous processes required to organise the polls, the cost of running a well-informed and participative government would be only marginally higher to begin with. The overall costs of governance over the medium and long term would drop dramatically owing to the far higher quality of decisions.

Online polls would also act as conduits to channel movements mobilised by the general public and driven by the social media. In the future, such movements are likely to increase in number and intensity. In a direct democracy, this sort of a movement would have conformed to the original definition of initiative. The re-engineered model of democracy provides a formalism for the orderly incorporation of such movements. In addition, the new model would provide institutional processes for unambiguously implementing the people’s will in situations such as what prevailed in Tamil Nadu.

Answering sceptics

Sceptics of the proposed reforms to the indirect democracy model need only turn to online banking and e-commerce. Very high volume transactions with uncompromised integrity of identity and accounting are being performed on a daily basis. The error and breach rates are far lower than that of the traditional world of elections.

A report by Nasscom and Akamai Technologies released around August 2016 predicts India would have 730 million internet users by 2020. Current smartphone shipments in India are at an annualised rate of 140 million units. This vision of a re-engineered democracy would take a few years to realise and requires the creation of an Amazon or Netflix type technology architecture. By the time the architecture is ready, the voting Indian population should have access to the internet through smartphones or otherwise.

Given its prowess in IT, India can lead the way by launching a distinct e-governance initiative centred on online polls and powerful analytics. The re-engineered democracy is a revolution which is overdue.

The writer is the founder of Anantara Solutions

Published on April 12, 2017
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