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A Call to Social Arms – Part 1

Israel’s mandatory military service program has long been an ideal for some concerned Indian citizens (Israeli citizens need to put in a 2-3 year military stint after turning 18). They argue that a similar program for Indian citizens is the only way to inculcate patriotism and selfless service. Perhaps. After all, we are living in an era that glorifies and celebrates me-myself-and-me like never before.

However, is military service the best vehicle to push the individual from the “me circle” to the wider me+community and me+community+country circles? No. For starters, the Indian military is one among a handful of Indian institutions that’s squeaky-clean and has a proud heritage. Recruitment levels haven’t fallen either. The last thing we want, through a ‘well-intentioned’ policy, is to mess with something that’s working just fine.

Which brings us to something that’s not working “just fine” – India’s measures to drastically minimize poverty. What I won’t do is to trot out an array of statistics to back the assertion since I don’t expect anybody to dispute it.

Getting India’s lumbering democracy to become more participatory, accountable & leakage-free is a very tall order. Democracy is a slow and messy business and anyone peddling quick fixes either doesn’t understand democracy or worse, doesn’t believe in democratic institutions. Social entrepreneurship and social activism, which are burgeoning at the intersection of democracy, civil society and capitalism, are thriving in India only because of the tremendous failings of the government in critical areas.

Getting the narrative back to the level of the individual, there are three trends that offer tendrils of hope for India:

  • Increased participation in democracy
  • Empathy at the top of the social funnel
  • Multi-disciplinary crossovers into social entrepreneurship

Increased participation in democracy

Voter turnout in elections is a key indicator for the health of a democracy. During the last general election (for India’s 14th Lok Sabha), the average voter turnout across India was 59.7%. While this wasn’t the highest turnout (that distinction goes to the 8th Lok Sabha elections in 1984 where voter turnout touched 63.6%), it’s noteworthy that in only five general elections has the voter turnout dipped below 60% (and it’s never dipped below 55%). In the 2009 general election, smaller northeastern states had very high turnouts — Sikkim, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, and Tripura had upwards of 70% turnout. Among the larger states, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu & Andhra Pradesh led with 79%, 72% and 72% respectively.

Historically, voter turnout in state assembly elections has always been higher than Lok Sabha. The recent state assembly elections (May 2011) in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Kerala set all kinds of voter turnout records – West Bengal at 87% (82% in 2006), Tamil Nadu at 79% (71% in 2006), and Kerala at 75% (72% in 2006).

While voter turnout and improved discerning abilities of the Indian voter are things we can justifiably feel good about, the quality of the Indian parliamentarian leaves much to be desired. (understatement of the year?) Criminalization, corruption and cluelessness are the three dark C’s that are pervasive across all political parties – with the result that voters are voting for the least reprehensible candidate in several elections.

Three organizations that are doing highly meritorious work in chipping away at the three C’s are Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), PRS Legislative Research, and Janaagraha Center for Citizenship and Democracy.

Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR)

Founded in 1999 by Dr. Trilochan Sastry (Academic Dean of IIM-Bangalore) and several professors from IIM-Ahmedabad, ADR fired its first salvo via a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court asking for mandatory disclosure of criminal, financial and educational background of candidates contesting elections to the Parliament and State Legislatures, prior to the polls. After a series of legal spars with the Government of India, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment in March 2003 following which the Election Commission of India passed orders making such declarations mandatory for the State, Panchayat and Local Bodies’ elections.

Dr. Sastry calls this the Al Capone story – where the FBI eventually nabbed Capone on a mundane charge of tax evasion. The ADR’s ‘seemingly benign’ disclosures have set off a virtuous cycle of positive impacts in the political establishment. Even though voters are still not paying much attention to criminal cases pending against candidates, the national parties are using it to weed out their ‘really bad’ apples. When ADR started tracking the disclosures for the first election, there were 18% of candidates in Gujarat with criminal record. In the next election, that rate came down to 9%. In the 2004 Karnataka state assembly elections, 23% of candidates fielded by BJP had a criminal record – in the 2008 elections, that percentage dropped to 13%. Moreover, since candidates need also disclose their financial background, there’s been a flurry of parliamentarians lining up in Delhi to pay off their outstanding tax dues, to avoid disclosure embarrassment. There’s a lot more to the ADR story and we’ll likely do a follow-up post dedicated to it in the future.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series… PRS Legislative Research, Janaagraha’s I PAID A BRIBE campaign and the rest of the  trends.)