The people’s revolt against the prevailing political system and the political class demand radical changes. Democracy must truly mean a ‘government of the people, by the people for the people’
By Mrinal Roy
This week was momentous in many respects. It was a week of reckoning. On 15 January, the MedPoint case took centre stage during the legal battle enacted in front of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In the House of Commons, British MPs rejected by 432 votes to 202 Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal by a record-breaking 230 votes. Her ignominious defeat throws the whole process of the UK exit from the European Union in limbo, a bit more than two months before 29 March 2019 when the UK is due to leave the European Union. As expected, she however survived a vote of no-confidence tabled by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by a majority of 19 votes as the Tories want to avoid general elections. The past week was also the ninth week of undeterred protests of the gilets jaunes against the government in France. All these events could have game changing repercussions and recast the future.
The MedPoint case, the Brexit deal or the anger and revolt of the gilets jaunes all stem from the intrinsic failings of the present political system and its growing disconnect with the people and their concerns.
The latest episode of the long-drawn MedPoint clinic saga unfolded during the hearings of the Privy Council. More than eight years have elapsed since it was purchased by government under controversial circumstances. The procedures were however initiated as early as in January 2010. The saga has spanned four governments. The key question which baffles the country and the people is: How on earth could a basically distressed clinic that was no longer operating have been purchased by the government in the first place?
As a matter of principle governments should not be buying assets belonging to family or close relatives of members of government or be involved in similar transactions such as renting premises belonging to government members. Questions have also been raised on the price paid as the clinic which was initially valued at Rs 75 million was re-valued at a substantial premium at Rs 125 million before being purchased by government at Rs 144.7 million on 28 December 2010, days ahead of the application of a capital gains tax of 15% on 1 January 2011.
MedPoint, which was initially to be converted into a government geriatric hospital, is now eight years later to be rebuilt into a cancer hospital. To put it simply, the whole MedPoint saga which has involved various governments has raised serious questions of propriety among the people. The upshot of this unseemly situation is that the fate of a sitting Prime Minister now hinges on the ruling of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It has shown the country in a bad light.
Is it not therefore high time for us as a nation to reboot the country to the highest benchmarks of governance and rectitude prevailing in the best democracies in the world?
Sense of alienation
The continuing protests of the gilets jaunes movement in France which is running in its ninth week showcase the people’s revolt against the prevailing political order and its failings. It is more and more evident that there is a growing anger and profound sense of alienation against governments, the political system and the political class among the people across the world. Over recent years this revolt has led to electoral upsets in the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. The election of Donald Trump in the US, Emmanuel Macron in France and the rise of populist and extremist parties across Europe in Italy, Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Holland, Scandinavia and Germany are potent evidence of the profound anger and angst among the people.
More importantly, there is also a pervasive feeling among the people that representative democracy is not functioning as expected. Once elected, governments pursue their own vested agendas instead of being tuned to and addressing the existential concerns of the people. Representative democracy means that elected MPs keep in close touch with their constituents on government actions and unswervingly be the vocal advocates of their concerns and grievances to ensure that these are promptly resolved. However, the ground reality too often shows that MPs, once elected, subserviently toe the party line and kowtow to the diktats of their omnipotent leaders. As a result, the people’s and the public interest are very often shortchanged.
Emmanuel Macron who was elected in a landslide victory only some 20 months ago is the object of an unwavering grassroots rebellion by angry mainstream citizens during the last nine weeks. The gilets jaunes’ anger and protests stem from the disappointment of the people at the policies and actions taken by President Macron, despite his promises of an economic turnaround and a better quality of life. They accuse him of being out of touch with the existential concerns of the people and of catering to the needs of the wealthy. They have called for his resignation.
The gilets jaunes who have no organized leadership have thus become a potent symbol of discontent of the people against the political Establishment and their policies. They are bonded by their common grievances, the precarity of their livelihoods and the hardships endured by them owing to their eroding purchasing power.
Danielle, a retired private sector cadre who worked in the human resources department and lives in a suburb of Paris has been diligently participating in the gilets jaunes protests in Paris over the last nine weeks. She ekes out a modest living from her pension of some Euros 1,300 per month with two adult children. She cannot afford to go on holidays or go to the hairdresser and leads a simple life assuring basic necessities. However, like tens of thousands of others across France, she wants a radical change of the political system and the socio-economic order where people, as in a true democracy, will have a direct and greater say in the manner the country is run and ensure that the government puts the people and their concerns at the centre of government action.
The growing disappointment with the prevailing political system and the political class is inter alia building into an increasing clamour for direct democracy whereby people decide on policy initiatives directly. The anger of the people at the blatant misuse of representative democracy by governments and MPs elected by the people has led some gilets jaunes to make radical proposals that the French Constitution be amended to enable citizens to demand the abrogation of laws, the sacking of politicians or to propose new laws, etc.
A pedagogical tract aired on social media explains its modus operandi to the people. Forms of direct democracy exist in Switzerland. As reported in Le Monde some presidential candidates in the 2017 elections and some political parties in France have already proposed similar forms of direct democracy proposals and consultations with the people.
The people cannot accept that governments and MPs once elected consider that they have a blank cheque to do whatever they want. They have to consult their constituents to validate all major policies and decisions and take on board their views and protests, if any. Whether it is the Brexit deal or the prolonged shutdown in the US or electoral reform and the financing of political parties in Mauritius, the views and approval of the people must necessarily be first sought and obtained.
Governments and MPs cannot act on their own volition on major national issues and policies without consulting the people. The people must have the right to oversee and comment government actions and propose corrective actions if need be. The oversight of the people on the government and the MPs and their accountability to the people has to be continuous. People no longer want to wait for general elections to chastise or sanction the government. They want to continuously monitor and if need be upbraid the governance and performance of government. Such an oversight would significantly improve governance.
More than two and half years after the British vote in favour of Brexit at the referendum held in June 2016, the country is back to the drawing board and remains profoundly divided without a clear pathway and a consensus as to the way forward. Politicians took control and struck a widely contested Brexit deal with an intransigent EU which was bound to be rejected. There was no real effort to first test and validate proposals. The absence of a national consultative mechanism encompassing Brexiteers and those who want to remain to rationally arrive at what is above all best for the people and the country entrenched the divide. A no deal scenario is bad for both Britain and the EU. When a leader has failed to deliver over two and half years, isn’t it time for a change of leadership, approach and negotiating game plan for the benefit of the country and the people? When will repeatedly defeated leaders learn to step down in the superior interest of the country and the people? Will good sense finally prevail? Time is fast running out.
The people’s revolt against the prevailing political system and the political class demand radical changes aimed at restoring the seminal principles of democracy in each country and expanding the democratic space across the world through elements of direct democracy. Democracy must truly mean a ‘government of the people, by the people for the people’. This primarily means that the people must remain the final arbiter of all key decisions and policies which have a bearing on their livelihoods and the public interest. It also means that the government and MPs must remain continuously accountable to the people. In essence, the oversight of the people over the government and its governance must be absolute.
* Published in print edition on 18 January 2019