More Referendums, not Fewer

India, as a nation state, does not care much for philosophical rectitude of the source of its sovereignty. After all, it promised Kashmir a plebiscite in 1948 and has since reneged on it. The consent of the governed has rarely ever been discussed; not even in the Constituent Assembly Debates. To live in such a country and look at the two recent referendums that Britain has conducted leaves one wondering about the moral legitimacy of a lot of things that modern societies have come to accept.

Consider the state of our democracy now: we elect a person who then goes on to vote on our behalf in the Parliament. That’s not a great system by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It is a vestige that can be traced to the Magna Carta: elected MPs have replaced Barons but the concept of electing a person as opposed what we actually want is still a feudal idea that is beholden to the ‘great man theory.’ The moment we have individuals, their decisions are incentivized by their career prospects.

The alternative, direct democracy or the Athenian model as opposed to the Magna Carta version, has its own flaws. Quite often, indirect democracy saves us from ugly bigotry of the electorate. It’s quite likely that if direct democracy were practiced we’d not have outlawed untouchability or sati or child marriage. But human societies have evolved enough to deal with this complexity and not fall victim to such a binary solution space.

A common refrain of those who want to refuse the Kashmiris a plebiscite is to cite the voter turnout of Kashmir in elections that India conducts. The argument is: participation in elections that India conducts is proof of the voter’s affiliation to India. That’s absurd. It then follows that wherever participation falls below a certain threshold, the population there automatically rejects its affiliation to India. But more importantly, such reasoning conflates the detail of governance with source of sovereignty. A Kashmiri may well dislike being part of India but may also want a say in local administration because it affects him/her.

The consent of the governed as we now understand in the context of electoral democracy derives mainly from the English Civil war, French Revolution and the American War of Independence. None of them resolve the question completely. But they all uniformly drive at the unit of governance being distinct from source of moral legitimacy for sovereignty.

An elected representative in 2016 is not even a logistical compromise. Technology can circumvent that. It’s not necessary for an elected individual to go to an Assembly to cast a vote on a piece of legislation. People can do that from the comfort of their homes. It’s possible to imagine a system that strikes a balance between efficiency of delivering administration and philosophical rectitude while still managing to side step extreme bigotry. To start with, people could be given N votes in their lifetime where N is significantly less than the number of elections they are likely to cast their votes on in their lifetime. That makes people really value the vote they are casting. Such a system will perhaps result in a reasonably stable body politic in a few iterations and can eliminate the need for elected representatives.

Will such a system result in a referendum seeking independence for Jammu & Kashmir? Likely. For Tamil Nadu? Possibly. But at least it will be more just and less feudal; there won’t be a Boris Johnson for instance. It will also likely treat minorities better: after all those who’re really oppressed will be more willing to use their limited votes to address that than larger population.