Author Sudipta Kaviraj has called India a mysterious democracy as it’s consistency and quality pose questions to political analysts across the world, despite defying various preconditions such as relative economic growth, literacy level and so on. The robustness of the Indian democracy is shaped by citizens’ active participation in the democratic processes. The argumentative nature of every Indian, which flows from the history of public reasoning and debate, makes it a vibrant society. This deliberative tradition ingrained in Indian citizens has been critical in the evolution of its democracy. As the nation is preparing itself for the next general election, citizen participation in expressing their development desires is essential.
While policymaking is the job of the elected representatives who symbolize the interests of the public in a democratic system, it is the function of the citizens to see through surfacing of the issues and set the agenda for action. These actionable agendas are the derivatives from debates, discussions, and dissents which are integral to democracy and are often hosted by various fora. These negotiations between the citizens and the politicians are the cornerstone of policymaking in a functional democracy. Though citizen engagement is a central element of a healthy democracy, often they lack agency to voice their views and opinions on agendas of development, especially in India.
Furthermore, the involvement of various actors is spread randomly across policy domains, rendering some areas more prone to policy influence or a democratic deficit than others. A brief look into India’s history shows how various social movements and youth movements have altered India’s policy discourse, by which the spirit of democracy. Movements like ‘India Against Corruption’ which mobilized mass crowds on the streets of the capital and across India set the agenda for 2014 general elections, whereas ‘The long walk of farmers’ in Maharashtra, redefined the policy priorities of the government. Stakeholder interactions are indispensable to policymaking in a democracy and pre-election citizen engagement is a necessary condition for influencing the policy processes.
Forums which will enhance public engagement for advancing the public agendas are the important levers in a healthy democracy. The evidence beckons that citizens’ role is limited due to their ignorance of the powers vested in them or at times they are denied the access to platforms which set the goals for the incumbent. Several civil society organizations and political forums are filling this void by creating platforms to facilitate citizen participation in agenda setting. At this time in history, when the world’s largest democracy is going for elections, there is a need for these conversations, to fill the void between voters and leaders, for redefining citizen participation to the ‘Set the Agenda for the Nation’.