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Strengthening Democracy, Making it Real - Nikhil Picardo

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Can local politics be about giving back to society, not a means for earning? This was our thought process and we have received lots of feedback and encouragement to pursue this idea. The main concern raised was whether it is an impractical utopia. Has it ever been done before? Given the huge sums involved in elections, how can normal, honest workers ever hope to contest elections? Such were the doubts and there were many.

So, let us break it down. First, has it been done before? Yes, the attempt was made in several nations, famously by the Five Star Movement in Italy. In India, many have got into politics after successful careers to contribute to governance and change the system not to indulge in corruption or make money. Nandan Nilekani was already wealthy when he joined UIDAI to create an AADHAAR for every citizen. Sreedharan and Kamal Hassan are not entering politics to make money. So, there has always been the idea of giving back to society. The only thing new is starting at the bottom (local municipality), getting in after retirement, and having only one term / five years at any position.

The possible scale is huge and that has not been attempted before, but we never had the technologies or the social media tools we have now. If only the US could put a man on the moon until now it does not mean that no other nation will in the future. India never had a bullet train system until now, but the technologies keep getting cheaper or going off-patent and it is possible in the future there could be something faster and better.

Also, when it comes to selecting good candidates, retirees, especially from the burgeoning services sector are financially secure, healthier, and more capable of contributing to governance than ever before. Tools like Zoom or WhatsApp video conferences were simply not possible before so something doesn't need to have been done to know it is possible.

Second, was the doubt regarding huge money spent on elections. Is it possible to contest without funding? The money power of big parties is an undoubted advantage but the performance of Iceland or a Leicester City or Everton in football show us that money is not everything. It cannot buy passion and teamwork. Money can buy the biggest talents though and that tilts the odds. The biggest talents contest for the Lok Sabha, we are not going there. The next level is the legislative assemblies, and we are not going there either. When it comes to local elections, there are hardly any heavyweights or moneybags trying to win their respective wards. Yes, there are a few local goons, and hafta collectors but the winning margin of such candidates is usually less than the number of people who never vote or vote “NOTA” (none of the above). Many of these potential voters would likely go out and vote if they truly believed the candidate was sincere about governance. There could be “zero budget” candidates, campaigning via only video conferences and on social media. Not having a budget does not mean the absence of volunteers. Paid advertising or hiring big stages or halls will not be possible but is that required today? If an idea is worth sharing and well expressed would we not search and find such speakers on YouTube, even those far away, and do we not already share such ideas on WhatsApp?

The third doubt was, how such candidates can make a difference, or rather would they be trusted? Voters are so used to promises that the presumption is that the candidate will lie. Here we introduce “Zero budget governance”. This simply means that not every solution needs a separate budget or higher taxes. In a city like Mumbai for example many struggles to commute, not because there is no Ola/ Uber but simply because they are too expensive, and the buses/ locals are too crowded. It does not cost anything to ensure that all taxi/ auto stands are converted to shared vehicle stands, thus ensuring the common man has one more option. Those well off can still book all three or all four seats and command the entire vehicle. Currently, there are many taxi stands where you must take the entire vehicle simply because there is no seat-sharing option at all. Many such initiatives could help the masses without costing much and having local candidates, those who have faced the issues themselves is the first step towards better governance. Of course, if the large, existing parties take these ideas and implement them and take all the credit, it is still a win as the idea is to contribute to society not to grab power. There will be a new group of retirees every year and it may be possible that they do not even need to contest, just be a pressure group. If local issues/ concerns are not addressed they will contest.

May be worth a try. If we fail, we are no worse than when we started.

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