Sofa-set sentimentalists

“Armchair critics”, “armchair experts,” these words get thrashed around a lot on people who just sit and speak about issues. Funnily, the only thing true about these terms is the “armchair,” that too may be substituted in many cases with a couch, bean bag or office-chair. Not everybody who complains is an expert or a critic. It is chiefly that they have felt something and they are expressing it. This expression could be critical in nature, suggestive, or simply negative. In essence, however, whatever opinion is voiced, it comes out of an emotion towards that particular topic, and hence the term that I chose, “sentimentalists.” All of us have been in those situations.

Cricket matches, sordid cineAccountability displays responsibilitymas, off-key music shows, and the mother-of-them-all the news debates. We spew commentary and criticism, exasperation and elation with the bleak ray of hope that somewhere, somehow these decision-makers will latch on to our freewheeling thoughts! How? Do not ask. Which leads me to the topic of this post- are we just that in essence? A sofa-set sentimentalist? An individual who too sees a soul mate in the news anchor screaming, “the nation is outraged. The nation demands an answer”?

I strongly believe not. Our daily activities may have little involvement in the democratic set up, but our right to vote, changes the equation on accountability. When there is a sense of outrage or pity or helplessness, all we need to do is clutch this pillar of right and seek to stand upright in immoral times. These drama-debates have played in the background of my dining room at home, in the common room of my hostel and at tea-stalls and remote bus stands. When we are aware that the media binds us and compels a majority of us to take note of an issue, why do we just go on an emotional outpouring? I have been in these situations myself, but when a question repeatedly torments you, you seek an answer for it. With that knowledge, we must evolve to do more than “like” a Faceboook page, sign an online petition or simply march sloganeering. I do not dismiss these acts of solidarity and opinion gathering. My suggestion, however, is to act upon the answer. Walk towards a participatory democracy armed with the rights of a citizen.

After much thought, I found truth and solace in the management principle that every responsibility must be backed by accountability for effective functioning of any system. We know that those Elected are responsible to run the nation and while we demand accountability from them for their actions, we choose to ignore the elephant sitting in our living room. We do not apply the same standards to ourselves. We too have responsibilities as Electors.  What accountability do we display? I have now understood that if the Elector displays responsibility, the elected displays accountability. And here is how!

 A leader sitting miles away is not going to hear our outcry. We can, however, in subtle and powerful ways remind them that WE ARE WATCHING. All we need to do is simply become aware of what is happening to us on a micro level. Once we are micro-empowered, tackling macro issues become a collective responsibility. If you belong to an urban area, find out who the corporator is, attend the ward sabhas regularly, and voice your grievance there and not just to your relatives over dinner. If the electorate belongs to a Gram Panchayat, then meet the ward Panch, Sarpanch or Block Development Officer and register complaints or suggestions at Gram Sabha meetings. It is important that these interactions are in a written form and not just vocal, to prove as evidence for future dealings.

This is the foundation level of participatory democracy. Going one step ahead, find out who the MLA is, what the MLA has done with the MLA Local Area Development Scheme (LADS) funds. This information is easily available on many websites including ones like www.adrindia.org, www.prsindia.org and www.governancenow.com . In absence of satisfying searches online, a Right To Information appeal can always be filed to know these details. How to file an RTI is elucidated here (www.rti.gov.in). The same questions and processes can be applied on a macro level for a Member of Parliament, the MPLADS, etc. As an elector demanding accountability, it is however foolish if we stop at this level. The real task comes at the time of voting. It is not an informed decision when you make a choice without adequate information about all the candidates in the fray. Go ahead and learn about them.

–          What is their name? What did they do?

–          Ensure that criminal records are not even a few.

–          Bank accounts and assets- how much do they hold?

–          Understand their manifesto, not what you are told.

These simple processes are much more fulfilling and satisfying than simply adding one’s name to a long-list of equally unknown signatories demanding an amendment in the constitution. We, at least a lot of friends and I, have in the past clicked one link after another just finding friends on a network. Why is it not possible then to spend just the same amount of time and clicks to find out who is running the country, the state, the constituency? Once the knowledge is acquired, speak to friends, family, neighbours and colleagues, substantiate your opinions, criticisms, and complaints with the facts of democracy. If you are a sentimentalist, build a community of near and dear ones, and disseminate the knowledge. You will know if you share the sentiments of a country soon enough. Let not the media tell you that. We can choose to be proactive than reactive. Responsible and hence, accounted to. WE can show that we are responsible for the state of our roads, our power supply, our water, and our nation. The Elected have no choice but to then follow the voice of the empowered.

If you are a sentimentalist, be proud of it, but get away from that sofa. Being a sentimentalist is much more constructive than being indifferent, because it shows that you care about the state of affairs. Now, just enable yourself to do something about it. The nation need not be outraged. However, the nation can sure demand an answer.

PS: My thoughts on this issue have been greatly shaped by my exposure to democracy and its processes at the Panchayat levels. Many RTIs and Gram Sabhas later, I am beginning to understand how even a city-zen can spruce up the efficiency of an uncaring government.

Knowledge is power indeed. Knowledge is empowering, indeed.

Written by: IFD Yashaswini KS (Batch 2012-2013)

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