Sucheta Dalal :Finding someone to raise issues
Sucheta Dalal

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Finding someone to raise issues  

Mar 29, 2004

The findings of the largest ever opinion poll, conducted by The Indian Express-NDTV should worry the large body of dedicated citizen groups (as opposed to funded NGOs) that have sprung up all over the country.

Over the past few years, these groups have strived to work within their narrow, urban communities to improve accountability of the government, transparency in decision-making and to promote good political representation. The Association of Democratic Rights (comprising mainly the academics from management institutes, funded and supported by committed businessmen) has demanded and forced candidates to disclose their assets and criminal records. Other powerful groups in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh such as Parivartan and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan worked during the recent Assembly elections to collate information provided in the affidavits filed by political candidates and disseminated it to voters.

The programme had limited success, but it exposed the kind of choices that political parties make. This time around, a clutch of groups such as the Rashtriya Matadata Manch, National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements and the senior citizens’ group called Dignity Foundation plan to do their bit to increase public consciousness. But enhancing political awareness is not usually their core activity.

Their larger agenda is to make the government — both politicians and bureaucrats — more accountable to the electorate in various ways.

To this end, informed citizens have already won several small but significant victories through effective use of the Right to Information Act. Last week, Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan reports how an individual in Delhi established the citizens’ right to inspect the quality of civic work by the municipal corporation’s contractors and take samples. The Mahadhikar group, with activists in Mumbai and Pune and others in Bangalore report similar triumphs under the Act.

But these individual efforts usually have a larger national impact or turn into a bigger movement, when politicians follow up the issue by raising pertinent issues in parliament and in State Assemblies. This happens when Opposition leaders understand the importance and utility of reaching out to NGOs and citizen groups, which in turn are networked with the larger constituencies through their advocacy of issues such as environment, child labour, gender issues, tribal welfare, street children, communal harmony, poverty alleviation, animal welfare, AIDs etc. Unfortunately, the number of such savvy politicians has declined drastically. Very few politicians have bothered to understand or raise issues that affect ordinary citizens.

The Indian Express—NDTV poll suggests that we are in for another five years of unchallenged NDA rule if the Congress remains our main Opposition party. The poll findings are not surprising. Over the past four-and-a-half years, the Congress has failed to emerge as a formidable Opposition party or to connect with citizens on any significant issue. For instance, it only made some vague and empty noises about the monumental UTI scam in which several top politicians and their kin were involved.

Recently, when the murder of Satyendra Dubey led to an astounding outpouring of outrage from Indians both here and abroad, the Congress didn’t understand the phenomenon. It could have demanded answers from the government about who exposed Dubey’s letter to the PMO. Similarly, the main Opposition party sees no merit in reacting to the headline-grabbing antics of Murli Manohar Joshi in connection with the Indian Institute of Management.

But the party is more focussed on a contest with the BJP to hire the highest number of starlets, beauty queens and bhajan singers. The opinion polls suggest that the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) only needs powerful distractions such as cricket (opium for the masses) and entertainers (beauty queens and starlets) to see it through, but the opposition needs real issues.

Advertising campaigns will not change people’s vote. Why are politicians important to promote citizens’ causes? Committed action by citizens often leads to significant changes, but only with the help of judicial activism. Apart from that, tiny efforts gain national prominence only when politicians raise the issue in Parliament, embarrass the government and force it to initiate corrective action.

In a powerful democracy, the Opposition grabs such opportunities to make media headlines and win public support - all with an eye to future elections. In the past, such groups across the country used to depend on politicians in the opposition, especially the Left parties to support them and to raise important issues in parliament. Leaders such as Somnath Chatterjee and Gurudas Dasgupta were their favourites, so was George Fernandes or the late Madhu Limaye. One more example is the contrast between the Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPC) that investigated the Scam of 1992 and that of 2000. The latter — notwithstanding Mani Shankar Aiyer’s protestations in these pages — made no serious effort to find out the truth. In 1992, JPC members in the Opposition —at least in the initial days — made an effort to understand financial transactions and to get at the truth.

Barely a third of the members of JPC 2000 bothered to attend the hearings and even the Opposition got their information mainly from the scam-accused. In a functioning democracy, a strong Opposition is necessary to keep debate, dissent and democracy alive. That is why, who we have in the opposition is just as important as who we elect to power and every good politician is individually important to the country.
-- Sucheta Dalal