Gurcharan Das made this argument implicitly when he argued “reforms” were difficult in a democracy because they gave “too much” space to dissent.
Amitabh Kant, the CEO of the NITI Aayog on December 8, 2020 repeated the same moniker and caught himself on tape, admiring China for its ability to reform with such endearing felicity, forgetting the same people had earlier exterminated some 6 million of their citizens, in trying to “reform” China under Mao Zedong. The tragedy is that he comes from the IAS tribe, still in service, and that gives us a rare window through which to peek into the illustrious minds of our savant rulers. The turgid mishmash of rancid sledge lurking there is terrifying.
So let us unpack this “too much democracy hindering reforms” argument a bit, to see where it comes from, why it captures the minds of dimwits, and how authoritarians succumb to its charm. To unpack “too much democracy,” you first have to unpack “reform.” Why and when does “reform” become necessary?
To all but the dimmest wits, it should be obvious that “reform” becomes necessary when the Government gets something wrong in the first place. Perhaps the problem was wrongly diagnosed in the past. Perhaps circumstances changed. May be past rulers were dishonest. Whatever the reason, Government got something wrong, by its own admission, and now needs to rectify the situation via so called “reform.” If it hadn’t screwed up in the first place, reform now would be unnecessary.
So what guarantee is there that Government has correctly diagnosed the problem now and has the right solution?
The fact is there is no such guarantee at all. In fact the dissent comes from the view that Government has got it wrong again, and that there is another point of view, and that this needs to be considered and reconciled with that of the Government. Dissent then is part of the process of analysing and fixing a problem, and not something that obstructs the process of fixing a problem.
So the notion that dissent obstructs reforms arises from a totally unwarranted assumption that [a] Government, and by implication the rulers, are infallible, and [b] that rulers have somehow an uncontested monopoly on wisdom, in as much they know what is best, at any given point in time.
Both assumptions are subtle, and implicit, in the idea of reform being obstructed by too much democracy. History is replete with instances where Government got it wrong and screwed up badly. Mao butchered 6 million citizens before his successors got things right. No, Governments are not infallible, they have no monopoly on wisdom, and they often are filled with Kantian mendicants, willing to cant and decant any piffle, at the behest of their masters.
The assumption of infallibility of the rulers is fallacious, which is why we have democracy, that allows citizens to challenge the rulers, ask them to prove that the solution they offer is fair, just and efficacious. And the rulers are obliged, by law, to offer explanations for why Government has chosen option X over Y, and why option Z proposed by a dissenter is less attractive than its choice X. If you cannot do so convincingly, then obviously the rulers didn’t do their homework.
Now that we know Governments are not infallible, and have no valid claim of monopoly on wisdom, let us look at the mandate to govern in a democracy, in a bit more detail.
There is this implicit presumption, on part of rulers, that having won the election, they can ram any policy down our throats because they have the majority. Dissent then becomes obstruction of the will of majority. This view is utter nonsense.
Elections are held every five years to choose who gets to run the executive; nothing more, nothing less.
Winning an election doesn’t confer infallibility and monopoly of wisdom on you. It doesn’t give you the right to upturn the Constitution. It doesn’t give you the right to bypass the meta-rules and conventions of democracy. It doesn’t give you the right to unilaterally ram you views down others’ throats.
And last, but not the least, it doesn’t exempt you from the obligation to speak the truth, to honestly explain what you are doing and why, list the consequences, consult all affected, and evolve a consensus, before using the majesty of law to bind everybody to the mutually agreed solution.
Democracy is a process, not a 5 year periodic election. The process of democracy is to discover the “reasoned will of the people” by consultation and debate.
Note the word “discover.” It is not something we know a-priori. If there were canned solutions to problem available off the shelf, democracy, itself would be unnecessary. But it becomes necessary because it is the process by which you discover the reasoned will of the people. Which is why you have an assembly, like the Parliament, where people send elected representatives.
Note these elected representatives owe the primary allegiance to their voters back home. They are charged with one solemn duty above all else; viz. to honestly and faithfully represent the interest of their constituents in the assembly. This duty overrides fealty to Government of the day, no matter which party the representative belongs to. Why?
This is because the people reflect their views, ideas and interests through their representatives in the assembly, in which the reasoned will of the people is discovered. No ruler is gifted with the clairvoyance to know what people want. The only system of government in which the ruler claims an exclusive insight and clairvoyance into the subconscious and conscious will of the people is fascism.
When you pass laws without adequate consultation and consensus, you have dissent. But that dissent is also a part of the process by which a democracy determines the reasoned will of the people. It is not obstruction of the will of the people. Without addressing dissent the process of discovering a solution is incomplete. You cannot substitute legislation for the process. That is form without substance, and because such things happen, democracy has a check over this abuse of the privilege of a majority, by sanctioning the right to dissent. The way around the problem is to get dissenters on board before you rule them out by legislation. So what are we now left with of the “too much democracy obstructs reforms” argument.
We know govt. is not infallible, – this one has hardly got anything right over last 7 years; it has no monopoly over wisdom; and democracy is not elections every 5 years, but a process by which we discover the reasoned will of the people, in an assembly of representatives, through debate, discussion and negotiation over conflicts, till we have a resolution.
The only thing left is that this process of discovering the reasoned will of the people is too cumbersome and unwieldy.
That’s not true.
What is the problem with the farm bills? I will leave the economics aside and confine myself to the process of democracy alone. So, what hindered finding the right solution? The simple answer is dishonesty at multiple levels. In fact the lies were, and are, so pervasive that it hard to know where to begin with.
First dishonesty lies in trying to rush the bills through parliament without any consultation. Why this hurry? In retrospect, it turns out that agricultural commodity prices in the global markets are trending up after nearly 10 years of a bear market.
Prices of stuff like soya beans, sugar, wheat, rice, cotton are already up 20 to 30% from lows and are expected to go even higher.
Corporate traders saw a great opportunity to buy them cheap in domestic markets to export the stuff globally. They managed to convince some dimwit in the Government, that if only MSP was done away with, traders would could use the 20 to 30% fall in domestic prices of cereals to export the entire fresh arrivals in local markets. In fact reports of godowns and railroads built in anticipation of such an outcome have been carefully buried in the press.
Doing away with the MSP, was a politically difficult proposition. The Govt. knew there would be protests from affected farmers. So it carefully AVOIDED any prior consultation with stakeholders, and tried to push through legislation with minimum of consultation and no debate. It dishonestly tried to defeat the very process by which the reasoned will of the people is discovered.
Affected farmers can see the dishonesty. The dishonesty in turn has eviscerated trust, making a reasoned dialogue difficult with farmers. At another level, pervasive lies have been offered explaining the rationale of reforms, carefully skirting the fact that prices of cereals will fall across the country, when procurement at MSP in Punjab and Haryana stops. The lies have been varied. Liberation from “tyranny of APMCs” was the most disingenuous because protesting farmers faced lower prices outside APMCs, and not inside them.
They preferred higher prices of the “tyranny” from which Govt was liberating them, while helping itself to their money. When lies so permeate every level of debate, meaningful resolution of the problem becomes even more difficult.
Lastly, there is continuing effort to delegitimize the dissent by attributing it extraneous factors – the Khalistani ruse for instance, – that was rightly condemned by most thinking people.
So is the process of discovery of the reasoned will of the people to cumbersome and unwieldy?
The answer is yes, yes and yes but only because one party to the dispute knows it is being unfair, and is using every dishonest device available to defeat the very process by which reasoned will is discovered.
It is dishonesty that has vitiated the process, not that process is at fault. Had the Govt been honest, the problem would be clearly on the table – which is to see how the interim losses to farmers can be compensated when MSP goes – and solution to that is not rocket science.
Of course that means the traders driving the reforms before global prices drive local prices up, would lose the opportunity to buy cheap cereals, but then do we really owe that to them? As usual, behind the dishonesty hides a vested interest. Instead of exposing this, Govt. savants blame democracy.
What is the truth? The truth is democracy appears to be working fine. Its job is to lay bare the truth, and it will do so by its own processes, despite the best efforts of the Govt and its servile media.
It will, one way or the other, force the Govt. to acknowledge the real issue and to address it. Could it have been more effective. Yes, a little more honesty from Govt and its appointed Dalals in the media would have helped after resolution. But dishonesty is the culprit here, not democracy.
For, if only Mr. Kant had taken off his saffron-tinted blinkers, he would have realised that the reverse of what he said is the stark truth: it is not too much, but too little democracy which is the problem with reform and governance today. Democracy is the existence of robust constitutional values. Its ingredients include a willingness to consult and engage, federalism, tolerance of dissent, freedom of the press, a tireless quest for equity, social harmony, respect for autonomy of institutions, transparency, a pledge to abide by the rule of law. If only Mr. Kant would take the trouble of stepping out of his bio bubble in NITI AYOG he would notice that most of them do not exist in his master’s New India.
It frightens me that we have such baneful swill swishing in the craniums of our citizens. The black robes have already shown that their intellect and have lost its edge. But to discover that educated and intelligent citizenry is filled with trite and the trivial, induces despair.
What hope is there for democracy if those sworn to defending it, do not understand it?