Published here on November 1, 2013.
In a classic but much-criticised 1968 book, the political scientist Samuel Huntington put forward a model to explain “instability,” a problem American scholars and policy-makers then worried about a great deal. With a better quality of life, people come to have expectations for delivery and access that governments cannot meet. The political mobilization—protests and rallies, for instance—that follows creates instability. The great worry in the 1960s was that this instability would lead to the spread of communism. We have other anxieties today but the idea of government falling short continues to concern us.
We live in an age where every way of thinking has developed a crust of science envy and every sphere of action is pressurised into management envy. We borrow words and frames from both to describe our lives and sometimes they are pithy enough that we instinctively understand what they mean. Take the deficit. We have gone from using the term in the context of budgets and inflation, to talking about trust deficits, democracy deficits and governance deficits. In all instances, the deficit describes a shortfall in relation to some standard or some expectation. How do you move from the frame to the fix in matters social and political?
Expectations are inherently problematic: they arise in my head but pertain to some action that you are supposed to take. Given that my ability to make you act effectively is limited, the likelihood of realising expectations is improved by imagining ways for us to work together. Taking responsibility repairs deficits better than cataloguing the areas of shortfall or assigning blame. Not for nothing do we say, “When you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.” So when we talk about political shortfalls like trust deficits, democracy deficits and governance deficits, what is the underlying citizenship deficit? This, to my mind, is of greater interest and utility. The Constitution of India points to this with its list of ‘Fundamental Duties,’ underscoring its nature as a compact between state and citizens.
Yes, India’s infrastructure is notional in places; too many of us still live in squalor and insecurity; our freedoms feel fragile; basic needs are still a daily struggle—water, food, schooling, health; and of course, corruption is everywhere. What’s the fix? What can I do, as a citizen?
In the information age, not being aware is either a choice or a lifestyle consequence. If anything, what makes it hard for us to stay in touch is “too much information” rather than too little information. Overwhelmed, we opt out. A better citizenship choice is to stay informed selectively—I know at least what is going on in my neighbourhood, I stay informed about policies in my industry, I keep in touch with one area of policy that is important to me. If I choose to tune out completely, then I should not tune in just to complain.
What are my rights and what are the protections that the law affords me? It is important to find this out, and all too often, we skip this step. We outrage and demand, but our sense of entitlement is not always aligned with reality. For instance, it is in the aftermath of last December’s gang-rape, that many first learned about the many laws India has relating to different kinds of violence against women. We really should know. Legal literacy is an important element of citizenship, and primary responsibility for this lies with schools, colleges and civil society organizations. But in the age of the Internet, it is also possible to teach yourself. Laws, both as bare acts and FAQs and other accessible formats, are readily accessible.
One might postulate that there is an inversely proportionate relationship between the tendency to pontificate on politics and policy and the willingness to go out and vote. That’s what voter turn-out statistics suggest—the “educated” urban middle class cares enough to complain, but not enough to go out and vote. And voting is the citizenship equivalent of Facebook ‘likes’—a minimalistic-to-the-point-of-
passive way of saying, “I was here, I saw this, wanted you to know.” Yes, voter registration and getting an election ID are still painful processes, names remain missing from voting day lists, booths get captured, and so on—but getting all this right cannot be a prerequisite for participation. In fact, as more people show an interest in using the process, the pressure to fix and rationalise procedures increases. And if voting feels like so much work, how much harder must it be to get in the fray and contest elections? Perhaps we should not revile politicians so; they choose to do something much harder than the voting we are too lazy to bother with.
Public engagement can begin with becoming an active member of your residential housing society, even by just paying your society dues regularly and throwing garbage where it should be thrown. One might debate the specifics of taxation schedules and one might contest the use of public revenue, but the reality is that unless all of us chip in, there will not be enough resources in the public pool to do anyone any good. And while private companies may build and maintain shinier airports, governments also do unglamorous things like fumigate mosquito-breeding grounds and change bulbs in street-lights—things that neither bring great profit nor particular brand value. Who will pay for those, if we don’t? Tax evasion, bending traffic rules, illegal construction in our homes, siphoning off water and electricity—compliance is necessary for good governance. Compliance is our part of the deal we make with government; the terms are negotiable, but compliance is not.
But for those who hanker to do more, there are a million ways to get involved. Travelling through a very young United States of America in 1831-32, Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by how Americans volunteered in many community activities that worked towards their collective interest. He was convinced that the roots of American democracy lay therein. Residents’ Welfare Associations, voter drives, drives to clean up and against corruption and post-disaster relief activities are easy entry points for any of us. In addition, many service organizations might be able to use our skills, resources and facilities. You can give a little time to maybe proof-read for an NGO, to create and maintain their website, check their accounts, or help them raise funds. If you are a care-giver, you might donate some time to taking care of people who work in emergency services and occasionally need a little support. So much to do, so much need, so much to give! You can start exactly where you stand.
Civil society organizations and social movements perform very important political functions. One, among these, is to aggregate and make available information and platforms for learning. They create rallying-points for collective action and offer a counter-point to political parties that might be too invested in the systems they claim to want to change. Ultimately though, politics, the policy world, civil society and social movements begin and end with individuals—you and me. We choose engagement and activism over apathy and ignorance, and thereby, make the difference. And when we try to live the ideals we espouse, we deepen change into transformation.
As Alice Walker wrote, “Expect nothing. Live frugally/ On surprise./ Become a stranger/ To need of pity/ Or, if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough/ Stop short of urge to plead/ Then purge away the need.” Or Iqbal’s words might resonate better: “Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer se pehle/ khuda banda se khud poochhe, bata, teri raza kya hai.”
Behind every governance deficit, there lies a citizenship deficit. It’s a simple thing. If I cannot be bothered to stay informed and participate, and if all my ingenuity is spent in getting around the rules I authorise my government to make for our collective welfare, then really, I cannot and should not complain. That goes for you too.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and runs Prajnya, an NGO mandated to undertake public education as part of its activities.