Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom-Thomas Jefferson
When addressing House of Commons on November 11, 1947, Winston Churchill said that Democracy was the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that had been tried from time to time, he might have in his mind the opportunities of accountability of the rulers that the democracy provides in greater number in comparison with any other form of government. Since democracy is defined as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’, it can be said that a citizen plays a pivotal role in the success or otherwise of the democratic system of government in terms of putting the resources to judicious use for the greater good of the society. In other words, what sets apart democratic system of government with any other form of government is the ability of the citizens to hold their elected representatives and public officials accountable. Furthermore, we can also say that if citizens are unable to hold elected representative and public officials accountable, it would become difficult to distinguish democratic system of government from other forms of government in which rulers are unaccountable to their citizens. So, how can citizens ensure accountability of their politicians and officials and what are their responsibilities in this regard?
At the outset, it needs to be understood that each and every voter should not only cast his vote but should be able to cast his/her vote independently, in secret and with dignity to elect representatives to run affairs of the government on his/her behalf. Furthermore, citizens should make sure that they are making informed choices while electing their representatives. If citizens are able to make informed choices rather than those based on rumors, they will be able to reject those candidates who could not protect their interests and did not work for the greater good of the society or are not qualified for such a responsibility. In other words, democracy is such a system of government that allows citizens to contribute to the public accountability right from elections stage of the democratic process. Are elections only way of public accountability in democratic set-up?
Elections are but just one of many ways of public accountability in democratic form of government. In fact, it is responsibility of citizens to ensure public accountability throughout the democratic process right from one general election to the next general elections. Are political parties delivering on the promises made in their election manifestoes? Are the public resources being put to use in judicious manner? How can public accountability be ensured throughout the democratic process?
Citizens should ensure open and transparent functioning of public bodies. This can be done by putting in place procedures facilitating citizens in having access to information held by public bodies as well as proactive disclosure of information by public bodies. In other words, citizens should ensure first enactment and then implementation of right to information laws. The significance of right to information laws with regard to public accountability can be gauged from the fact that over 100 countries have enacted such laws. Furthermore, need for free, independent and responsible media for public accountability can hardly be exaggerated. That is why press is regarded as the fourth pillar of the state as journalists exercise right to information on the behalf of citizens and serve as watch-dog keeping eye on not only the other three pillars of the state i.e. judiciary, executive and legislature but also on everything else in the society which impacts public good.
This post has barely scratched the surface with regard to the significance of public accountability in a democratic set-up. Furthermore, the essential elements of public accountability need to be discussed in greater detail. For example, if it is important for citizens to cast their vote independently, in secret and with dignity to ensure public accountability, then it also needs to be discussed as to how each voter, irrespective of physical impairments, creed, color, gender and status should be able to do the same. Similarly, how it can be ensured that the media is free, independent and responsible and as to who will watch the watch-dog and how? How can citizens use right to information laws to ensure public accountability in a democratic process? These and other questions will be dealt with in other posts.