Why the right to recall is flawed

In India's public discourse on organising state power, some ideas enjoy an evocative space irrespective of their feasibility or theoretical implications. The idea of right to recall is one such all-time favourite of utopian democrats who have little patience for matters of scale and level, as also matters of the democratic capabilities residing in such measures.

After having raised public sentiment against the political class in particular and the idea of politics in general, the anti-corruption agitation has indicated that it would now target the issue of electoral reform. However, instead of initiating a substantive debate on possible measures for reforming our politics, leaders of the agitation have opted to cash in on the public mood by talking about the recall measure, which could easily be a very popular demand. This popularity in turn will allow the democracy crusaders to argue that it is "popular will" that neither parties nor the government can defy. Some political parties and leaders have unthinkingly, or for short-term gains, already expressed initial support for this idea. What is wrong with this apparently "democratic" idea to call back the representative before the completion of her/his term?

Let us not spend energy and space on the practical difficulties involved in this proposal. They are so colossal, that they do not even require mention. But more importantly, an idea deserves refutation not on grounds of feasibility alone, but on grounds of its theoretical limitations for the purposes for which it is employed.

There are two possible (and interrelated) intentions behind the proposal for the right to recall. One is, of course, the ambition to "correct" the limitations and lacunae in electoral/representative democratic practice. The malfunctioning, excesses and inadequacies of representative democracy are evident and part of our political experience. So, the idea of the right to recall becomes instantly attractive as a tool to keep representatives on a leash. The other intention behind the right to recall is a hankering after some form of direct democracy and an ambition to gradually replace representative democracy with direct democracy. Among critics of representative democracy, there is strong sentiment not only against or about the practice of representation but also against the idea of representation itself. Today's proponents of the right to recall are tomorrow's radical democrats who will want to rewrite the idea of democracy itself. But they are not transparent enough to say that they fundamentally disagree with our current idea of democracy rather than disagreeing only with the current practice of democracy. By masquerading as critics of current practice of democracy, they tap the energies of a public disappointed with the ways our political class operates.

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