Editorial: Government by Discussion

Side-step consultations, and there will only be disinterest, diktats and protests

“Democracy is not just about ballots and votes, but also about public deliberation and reasoning, what - to use an old phrase - is often called ‘government by discussion’,” writes Amartya Sen in “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”.

The book is now twelve years old, but even when it came out, this was not really a paradigm-shifting revelation, but with the act of stating the obvious, the Nobel laureate made a strong statement. By devoting an entire chapter to fleshing out this point, he holds up the mirror to the country forcing us to admit that the world’s largest democracy appears to have forgotten what democracy is all about. Democracy has meant politics in India for far too long, leading to the aberration of politicians and political commentators wearing their ignorance on their sleeves, and without the slightest hint of embarrassment, holding forth on important issues and claiming to speak for the people of the country without having made any genuine attempt at consultations. The effortlessness with which false narratives are foisted and incomplete information circulated to influence public opinion is worrying. Also worrying is when important decisions are taken without the counsel of experts or consultations with interested and affected parties. These should have been standard practices, but have become abandoned courtesies which have reduced democracy to elections. It should hence not surprise that politics itself has been reduced to the segregated equation of those in power and those in the Opposition.

And when politics becomes about being in office and waiting in the wings, debates stop being about ideology and get established by positions. Those in office do what suits their interests and the Opposition protests everything. With vote-banks already identified and appropriated, the focus is only on keeping these secure. A sorry state of affairs… When a writer who also presented a case for the ‘Argumentative Indian’ reminds the same Indians of the need for pubic deliberations and reasoning, the message should become clear – the nation needs to relearn many things. Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” was the highest selling book in India in 2005-06. His next, quoted above, should also have been read more widely, and then, maybe, the nation would have invested in some introspection and that might have saved us from the chagrin of watching the political rhetoric of people’s representatives mouthing empty platitudes on issues which concern the entire nation and its future. Instead of genuine concern, one is being subjected to pompous self-righteousness and embarrassing self-praise.

Let’s reflect on Sikkim. Has anyone heard of public deliberations here? No, claims, denials and rejections do not constitute public deliberation since they are dictated by political positions, not built on informed opinion. And that is why in Sikkim there is rarely consensus, only diktats and protests. It is unfortunate that a people who at one time were so enamoured by the idea of democracy that they took on a 300 year old monarchy and even gave up their individuality as a nation state just so that they could have democracy, have, since then, pulled away from public participation in the public domain. Public deliberation does not mean that the people start debating at formal seminars; it is enough for them to become more involved in the process of democracy and its implementation. With their involvement, they will secure accountability – first at the local body level and from there upwards and across to the executive. Their involvement will force the elected representatives to make the right noises at the right places and times and motivate them to get more involved in the decision-making process themselves.