Beyond Democratic Rights and Electoral Reform Campaigns: Challenges Dacing Non-Party Political Movements

30 June 2004

by Vivek Ramkumar

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In India, people’s movements and grass roots campaigns have traditionally participated in the political process by articulating the needs of the poor and socially marginalized and by advocating for changes in governance and policy making processes that will address these needs. These movements have generally insisted on integrity and ethical behavior in their own campaign – and have demanded improvements in the behavior of political parties and of politicians. At this time, however, the movements are confronting new political forces – including the impacts of economic globalization–where decisions on issues of public interest are increasingly being taken at corporate board rooms of supra national corporations and away from national governments–and the rise of the religious right in India as a powerful political movement. In confronting these new issues, many people’s movements now find themselves tempted to move away from issue-based campaigns in order to take on more active roles in politics – even to the point of becoming political parties themselves.

This paper will examine this dilemma facing people’s movements in India regarding their future role in the political framework of the country by chronicling the experiences of one such people’s movement, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which has been active in the state of Rajasthan for 15 years. Specifically, the paper will examine the interaction that MKSS has had with the political system to date through its issue-oriented campaigns and, more recently, through its efforts to reform electoral processes. The paper will then discuss the trends and issues that are compelling the MKSS to consider whether more direct political engagement would enable it to accomplish its objectives and bring greater benefits for the people it serves. The paper will also briefly examine the risks that would attend such a move, including the challenge that the compulsions of real politic (electoral politics) and the prevalence of corruption in mainstream political system could have on the effectiveness of the ideology and the ethics currently used by people’s movements.

The paper is organized into three main sections. In Section I of this paper, I will examine the issue-oriented political campaigns previously undertaken by the MKSS. Two such campaigns viz, the “Right to Work” campaign and the Jan Nithi Abhyan (“People’s Agenda Campaign”), which were launched in the last couple of years by the MKSS and a broad network of civil society groups, will be discussed. In discussing these campaigns, I will briefly trace the needs and issues that these campaigns sought to address, the external factors (political and economic environment) influencing the conduct of these campaigns, and how the campaigns faired.

Section 2 of the paper will examine the work undertaken by the MKSS as a part of ongoing efforts by civil society organizations to effect technical reforms in the electoral system. Specifically, I will focus on efforts to strengthen electoral processes prior to the state assembly elections held in Rajasthan in 2003. Three specific reforms were identified and sought by the campaign, including:

  • Improvement of the voter registration process;
  • Collection and dissemination of personal information on candidates for office; and
  • Enforcement of the Code of Conduct promulgated by the Election Commission in an effort to prevent fraudulent conduct by candidates.

The paper will examine the situations that led the initiatives to target these three reforms. For each reform, the paper will also discuss the actions undertaken by the MKSS and other non governmental groups to effect change in the three election-related processes targeted for reform; in some cases, these actions were direct actions meant to supplement the activities of government organizations and thereby fill voids, while in other cases, the groups lobbied and eventually worked with the government bodies to implement the reforms.

The results of the campaigns and electoral reform efforts will be discussed in Section 3 and will lead into a consideration of the future political role of the MKSS.

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