India’s deteriorating public discourse
It is becoming increasingly difficult to have thoughtful deliberations about many difficult issues that the country is facing, such as demonetisation’s after-effects, the difficulty of doing business, the applications of Aadhaar, bans on cow slaughter, compulsory singing of the national anthem and so on.
We must step out for a moment from debates about the specific issues and consider why it has become difficult to listen to other points of view and what we must do to repair the platforms for deliberation. The progress of the country depends on this. Better dialogues will improve the quality of public policies. They will also strengthen democracy.
There is an old saying, “There are always three sides to every story: your side, the other side, and the truth”. Issues vexing the country, such as those mentioned above, are complex and have many angles to them. Sadly, if someone is presumed to be on the other side because she does not unquestioningly support our side’s view, there is no possibility of finding the truth. Loyalty to “our” side has begun to be valued more than the responsibility to question, criticize and find the correct answer when necessary. The belief is that if someone does not endorse our view, she must be on the other side. Whereas, she may not want to take either side. She may be just wondering what the truth really is.
The demand for unquestioning obedience is a sign of insecurity: of a perceived threat to one’s authority; or a threat to one’s beliefs—that indeed they may have been wrong. To admit that may appear to be a weakness whereas it is a sign of an unshakeable inner strength.
The electronic media, which is a prime channel for public communication, is not providing platforms for calm deliberation about issues that have many angles which must be considered. In most debates on prime time TV, everyone is shouting—and in some, the anchor most of all—and no one is listening. Social media is further deepening divisions. The principal thrust of new technology in social media businesses is to come up with better algorithms that can determine what each person likes and give her more of that. If we like some views, social media will give us more of the same. We follow who we like, and shut out those we do not. Thus, we are divided into intellectual and ideologically gated communities, behind walls across which some troll and lob hate bombs, and through which we cannot hear the views of people not like us.
A good doctor must understand how the whole body and all its organs function before prescribing a treatment for any ailment to avoid debilitating side effects. Economies and societies are very complex systems composed of diverse forces. It is essential, before undertaking bold economic and social reforms, to understand the structures of the complex system. What may be good for the long-term may be very painful in the short-term. What may improve one part of the economy may harm another part severely. Medical science has developed enough to provide a very good model of the human body to guide doctors. Moreover, all human beings have the same model of body, and this model evolves very slowly. However, economists and social scientists have not so far developed a robust and reliable model of an economy and a society.
Moreover, the shapes of the economies and the societies of nations vary greatly, and they evolve and change. Therefore, there is no standard model to guide the reform doctor. A systems model must be created by listening to diverse perspectives. The views of many “blind men” around the elephant, each blinkered to see only a portion of reality, who may not agree with each other, must be combined so that the whole elephant can be seen. Otherwise, policy fixes can backfire.
Mark Moore writes in his book, Creating Public Value: Strategic Management In Government (in the concluding chapter, titled “Acting For A Divided, Uncertain Society”) that the art of sound public policy management is the art of reconciling conflicting views. Not shutting out contrarian views, but listening to them, and reconciling them. He says that public leaders “must hold at arm’s length the comfort of close allies because they are duty-bound to hear and respond to the views of others who disagree with their supporters”. It is not easy to go outside one’s comfort zone. And the formats of public discourse are making it even more difficult.
Yet, leaders and policy-makers must venture outside the walls and seek many views. What they hear may challenge their beliefs. And people will not agree with each other. However, whether a country is a democracy or not, it is essential for a reformer to understand the system from many perspectives, to develop policies that will create the most good with least cost.
In a democracy, in addition, people must be heard because it is their right to be heard. India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, is a paean to India’s diversity. Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote it, also wrote Gitanjali, for which he got the Nobel Prize. In Gitanjali, he sings of a country in which “the mind is without fear and where the head is held high”. Which will be a country, he says, “that has not been broken into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”
Dividing a diverse country into fragments by religions, castes, and ideologies to acquire electoral power, and to simultaneously expect to unite people willingly under one national flag, is a bad idea. India’s leaders, whatever their own ideology, must be willing to listen to, and to respect many points of view, to shape better policies, and to strengthen the fabric of India’s democracy.
Arun Maira served in the erstwhile Planning Commission.
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