Democracy: If a country is to have a truly democratic system, responsibility remains mostly with the electors rather than the elected, according to Indian politician, Mani Shankar Aiyar, who recently spoke at 12th Friday Forum held at the Royal Institute of Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing.

It is the responsibility of the electors to question those they have elected, evaluate their performance, and decide whether to vote or not, said Mani Shankar Aiyar to an audience numbering in the hundreds.

His Majesty The King also graced the talk.

Mani Shankhar Aiyar is a former diplomat turned politician and a former Union Minister of Panchayati Raj in India. His topic of discussion was “Democracy – From Parliament to the Grassroots”.

National Council Chairperson, Dasho (Dr) Sonam Kinga, National Assembly Speaker Lyonpo Jigme Zangpo, and other members of parliament from both houses were also present.

“The democratic system must make people feel they are the beneficiaries and not victims,” Mani Shankar Aiyar said, adding there is much dissatisfaction around the world with regards to the democratic process. “That’s why there is frequent change in the governments.”

Giving examples of Norway and the Indian state of Sikkim, Mani Shankar Aiyar said that Bhutan too would have a great future. “Local government (LG) starts most quickly in hill areas and regions,” the former politician said. “The central government cannot reach in the hilly villages.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar said without central government interference, the LG could run their own shows.

Should there be no effort to reach to the grassroots in a democratic country, Mani Shankar Aiyar said there were high chances that only people at the elite levels are touched, while the poor go unheard.

He said democracy to grassroots is fulfilled when all individuals are empowered.

Mani Shankar Aiyar, who spent 25 years in politics, touched on one of his experiences. “I won by a majority of 150,000 votes in 1991,” he said. “I lost by 150,000 votes in the second term.”

Another example he provided was that there were still many places in India that have school infrastructures in place but no schoolteachers. This, according to him, was because the roles and responsibilities of government teachers did not fall under the Indian LG panchayat. Teachers were busy attending to the government higher authorities and therefore could not teach in the village schools.

“In private schools, teachers are accountable to the parents,” Mani Shankar Aiyar said. But with no local government representatives in the government school system, there was no one the villagers could complain to, he pointed out.

Mani Shankar Aiyar also stressed the need for strong and responsible administrations to get to the grassroots. He highlighted India’s case in the 1980s when participation in democracy numbered a mere 5,000 elected representatives. India today has 3.2m elected representatives, including grassroots participation.

Mani Shankar Aiyar said about 1.4m of the elected representatives are women. “About 86,000 of them hold offices,” he said.

However, these figures were a dream some decades ago, he said. With fewer representatives, there is a huge gap between the elected and the electors. “There was vacuum,” Mani Shankar Aiyar said. “There was a need for a method to bring in the distant and the alienated administrations much closer.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar also highlighted the pivotal role India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi played in changing Indian democracy. Mani Shankar Aiyar said Rajiv Gandhi had been concerned about how unresponsive the administration was to the needs of the grassroots even before he had become a politician.

The result was the introduction of “reservations” especially for women participation at the local level.

The best finance ministers were the wives among the poorest households in India, he said. “There are millions of poor households run by women,” Mani Shankar Aiyar said, adding that women know how to make ends meet.

“Democracy is a system that gives authority to the majority and still keeping reservations and rights,” he said.

Thereafter, Indian parliament kept 50 percent reservation for women in the panchayat (local government). Initially, only 33 percent was reserved.

Despite the significant change in participation, Mani Shankar Aiyar said Indian democracy still faced many hurdles and challenges today.

He stressed that democracy’s purpose is to give rights to each and every individual without letting it remain in the hands of elite groups.

Mani Shankar Aiyar said Bhutan has a great future democratic future ahead.

Rajesh Rai, Phuentsholing