We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

INDIA: Where Stands Ghandi's Dream of Participatory Democracy?

While the following commentary presents a rather pessimistic assessment of the state of participatory and direct democratic practices in India, there have in fact been advances in recent years in the expansion of the participatory models of Gram Swaraj and Panchayati Raj. See our other posts on India and the India section of our links resource page for more information. While Ghandi's dream of participatory democracy still faces many obstacles, a movement is afoot to revive that dream and it is slowly making progress. - Editor

Gandhi’s worst fears have come true


The Father of the Nation wanted to disband the Indian National Congress once it had outlived its raison d’etre of driving the British out of India. He felt that the best form of governance for India would be `swaraj’ (self-rule), by which Gandhi meant governance not by a hierarchical government but self governance through political decentralization and community building. But other political leaders of the time were least impressed by Gandhi’s idea of disbanding the INC or adopting Swaraj. Rather, the Congress Party went on to rule India ever since, except for an interregnum of 12 years when non-Congress combinations were in power. Contrary to Gandhi’s wishes, the Congress party’s leadership was usurped by the Nehru dynasty, which held the Prime Minister’s post for 33 out of 49 years when the Congress was in power. You can safely add four more years to the Nehru dynasty’s 33 year’s rule, given the fact that a member of the dynasty, Sonia Gandhi, is now the de facto prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh being just her `mukhouta’ (mask).

Gandhi considered direct democracy as the best form of governance for India out of his conviction that a nation of India’s diversity, largely illiterate population and sparring leaders (Gandhi himself was heartbroken by the fights between Nehru and Patel) cannot successfully run a parliamentary democracy of the British Westminster model.

Perhaps, the biggest `achievement’ that we can crow about is the very survival of democracy in the country. Though Indira Gandhi suppressed democracy by clamping national emergency in 1975-’77, India never plunged into military dictatorship as Pakistan did.

Our economy is growing at 9 percent, but what is our record on `roti, kapda aur makan’ (food, clothing and shelter) after 61 years of freedom? A 2007 report by an official agency states that despite significant economic progress, 77% of Indians, or 836 million people, live on less that Rs20 per day. 300 million people live below the national poverty line(Rs10 per day). India has the highest rate of malnutrition among children. 170 million people in India live in slums, which account for 63 % of all slum dwellers in South Asia and 17 % in the world. The number of unemployed in the country has crossed 30 crore. India is home to the largest segment of illiterates in the world.

What throws a spanner in the works of the Government’s poverty alleviation and welfare measures is the rampant corruption in administration. Transparency International places India at rank 72(among 146 nations) in the global corruption index. Some Rs21000 crore is estimated to change hands in the form of bribery in India annually. The parallel economy is growing faster than the GDP. Black money not only deprives the government of tax revenues, but also prevents the resources allocated for public welfare from reaching the targeted sections.

The second biggest threat to the body politic, after corruption, is the criminalization of politics. To modify a Samuel Johnson quote, politics has become the first refuge of the scoundrels in India. The will of the people is subjugated by money and muscle power. Criminals gain legal immunity and respectability by getting elected to Parliament and State Assemblies. The politician-mafia nexus has turned the nation into a hotbed of terrorism.

Is this the freedom Gandhi fought for? The freedom to loot the nation’s wealth for personal benefit? The freedom to imperil national security by harboring criminals? The freedom to hold monopoly over wealth creation?

Well, Gandhi would have stirred in his Raj Ghat samadhi had he come to know of how we used and abused the freedom that he attained for us from the British!

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