What is political participation?
In its most fundamental denotation, the term ‘political participation’ in a democracy constitutes any voluntary action taken by the public with an aim to bring about a change in the existing political domain or to influence the decisions taken by the government body. It constitutes a variety of activities, ranging from writing a petition, protesting to voting to elect a worthy candidate.
The traditional democratic theory demarcates the public as “sovereign” and “omnicompetent” in political matters. However, in a modern democracy, the process of political participation for an average citizen is hindered by a plethora of complexities that are overlooked by the simple traditional democratic model.
Why do people choose to remain apolitical?
Modern society has a quiddity to channel excessive information, that works to distract an average citizen or simply leaves them in the lurch. The common public can't participate intelligently and rationally in governance.
On the contrary, even though it is impossible for an average individual to comprehend the Daedalian canvass of modern society, they certainly possess the know-how to acquire and use the prerequisite knowledge reasonably to participate in a democracy. Citizens bear “democratic competence” i.e. the capacity to apply social knowledge robustly for political participation.
“Experts” need to work in tandem with the public as they must be guided by the public in social inquiry, enabling in taking effective decisions and they, in turn, must inform the public directly; paving their way to political participation.
The “Apolitical” citizens and social issues:
To understand the problem of political participation, let’s analyze an example. At the heels of the pandemic in May, the lockdown was reimposed in Mumbai; compelling the average suburban local train passengers to look for alternative sources of traveling. The local trains were open only to the essential workers listed under the guidelines for level three restrictions published by the state government. Citizens had to bear the yoke of time-consuming and expensive routine commute and with trains off the map, other means of inter-city public transportation i.e. public buses started turning increasingly crowded.
As a consequence of the inconvenience, several passenger associations such as the Rail Yatri Parishad organized demonstrations and demanded the easing of the curbs in allowing vaccinated passengers to travel in the local trains. As the positivity rate of Covid-19 began subsiding in June, many groups of workers resorted to appealing to local MLA’s to hone in on the demands concerning Mumbai’s lifeline.
However, most of the people did not participate until the issue received considerable media coverage in July. Earlier, non-politically inclined citizens chose to overlook the unabating issues and either survive the problems they were facing or did not abide by the guidelines altogether. 32,000 passengers were caught traveling without tickets in the suburban railway passage in May. The numbers only increased since June as the graph scaled down.
At the outset of July, many politicians including Milind Deora from Congress, BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhye and MNS Chief Raj Thackeray wrote letters to amplify the outreach of the concerns. In a letter to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on July 22nd, Raj Thackeray urged the government to allow passengers who were fully vaccinated to travel in local trains.
Similarly, other organizations such as the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa raised petitions for lawyers to travel in suburban locales. Other passenger organizations such as Suburban Railway Passenger Association, Mumbai Rail Passengers Association, and other local groups of businessmen also started demonstrating in support of the cause to demand vaccinated passengers to travel.
Problems in political participation and the way forward:
The earlier lack of political participation can be traced to the paucity of knowledge about the broader problem, ignorance on the part of the public, and lack of organization of the public. When the public participated, drawing prominent attention to the issue, review meetings were held between the state government and, the Covid-19 Task Force was appointed to look into the matter. Subsequently, the issue was analyzed from both sides and a conclusion was drawn-- resuming local trains for the public would not be feasible in the light of the potential third wave.
Deputy Chief Minister and Tourism Minister in Maharashtra, Aditya Thackeray cited the experts' warning against the third wave of Covid-19 for adhering to the existing lockdown plan. That being said, there was a lack of clarity about the modus operandi of the government regarding easing the restrictions, making it difficult for the public to understand the problem altogether. However, the experts could have played a more direct role in informing the public to facilitate political participation.
However, to provide some relief to the issue of overcrowding and inconvenience, a decision was taken to start a QR code pass system for traveling locals. Finally, on Wednesday, State Health Minister Rajesh Tope acknowledged the growing prominence of the issue and hinted at ease in the existing restrictions. Evidently, political participation in a democracy can speed up the recognition of the issues faced by the public by the decision-makers.
All in all, political involvement in a modern democracy is plagued by a variety of problems including the lack of objective and holistic information, disinterest, lack of organization and coordination in the public. The above instance is representative of the fact that active political engagement can greatly influence the government and its decisions. Thus, to increase political participation, it is important to address the barriers.
Some suggested solutions can include suitable conditions for free and extensive journalism whereby the media plays the role of bridging the gap of knowledge, providing better clarity and raising awareness about the avenues for public participation in a democracy, ensuring better coordination and accessibility of the public to the decision-makers either through experts or directly. Without active political participation in a democracy, it will be difficult to bring about changes and there would be an imbalance of power between the public and the administrations.
To conclude, if the majority of the Indian public remains apolitical, it would not be practical to the existing democratic canvass. The public is capable of taking up democratic actions to participate in governing. With the onset of the world going digital, the media plays a crucial role in transmitting knowledge to the public. With access to the multitude of right sources at their fingertips, the public, too, holds the capacity to initiate political actions.
Notwithstanding, it can also turn into a disaster without sparing any effort. The amount of knowledge available in the digital world can be overwhelming and, at times, lead the public to take no actions at all. Thus, it must be ensured that media plays the role of not only helping make the public interested in taking political actions but to ensure that objective information is made intelligible to them to facilitate their participation.
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