Many would argue vox populi is indeed vox dei—dei less the literal divine and more good policy-making—but that isn’t so. For one, given asymmetry of information, it is hardly prudent to assume that every person casting her vote in a referendum is making an objective, informed decision. Many who were part of winning Brexit vote had voiced regret almost immediately after, saying they weren’t aware of the full implications. Even democratic elections are held amidst information asymmetry, but these offer the electorate the chance to punish erring representatives or parties. Referendums, however, are more or less irreversible if implemented. Unimplemented, they fan strong, populist emotions and disrupt democratic functioning, like the Catalan independence referendum did.
The Delhi government’s direct democracy overtures are fraught with these risks and more. It has just ordered the closure of a liquor shop in Tilak Nagar, on the basis of a referendum conducted among 150 residents of the area. There were genuine complaints of unruly behaviour by drunks near the shop. But, the voters, as also the Kejriwal administration, did not consider the fact that the liquor shop was a legitimate business. It must have applied for a licence, paid taxes, and even generated employment. Shutting it down arbitrarily is not just unfair, it could well be illegal. A penalty and the threat of stricter legal action could have ensured the shop checked unruly behaviour. The Delhi government, instead, wants to shut down liquor shops/decide on their opening based on referendums. Such direct democracy sounds appealing, but what if tomorrow people of a certain community or nationality or even dietary habits are driven out of their homes because the majority objects to their presence there?