Home / Opinion / Columns /  The operating system of liberal democracy needs a big upgrade

Let’s take a few steps back from the current controversies over the conduct of our legislators—and indeed their counterparts in democracies around the world—and reflect on the logic of representative democracy.

The basic idea is that the best form of government is one by popular consent, and since it is impractical to get everyone’s opinion on every issue, people elect a few hundred representatives who act on their behalf. An added advantage of this method is that the representatives can apply their mind to complex issues of public policy and moderate impulsive, reckless and extremist tendencies that can take hold of public opinion from time to time. They also have a natural incentive to develop professional expertise in public policy matters and also to uphold the interests of their constituents in political negotiations conducted in the legislature.

Even the staunchest supporter of representative democracy will concede that this is not how it works in practice. We know that reality is quite different from the prospectus. The thing is, as Chris Bryant recounts in his engrossing two-volume history of the British parliament, it has been so since the beginning. Yet, democracy, as Winston Churchill put it, is “the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried."

We need not yield to the risky temptation of trying out a ‘new’ form of government: liberal democracy remains the most enlightened way for a society to organize itself. But we can—and we must—explore ways its mechanism can be improved. Indeed, if citizens of democracies around the world are dissatisfied with their systems, it is because we are still using industrial age mechanisms well into the information age.

Bryant’s analysis might disagree, but two centuries ago, it was perhaps conceivable that a few hundred members of parliament (MPs) had the time and capacity to properly interact with their constituents, understand their needs, educate themselves on the technicalities of policy and vote in accordance with their personal judgement. But can an MP who represents 3 million people really represent them? If we expand the Lok Sabha ten times and presume we get closer to a realistic ratio, a chamber of 5,450 MPs will either be dysfunctional or a mere rubber stamp.

Next, let’s say that most MPs spend a lot of their time educating themselves on policy issues: it is still impossible for them to have an informed view of important technical details on the sheer number of matters that come up before them. Try keeping up with the legislative briefs that the good people at PRS Legislative Research publish on a regular basis. It is not humanly possible for legislators to know enough about all the bills they are called upon to pass, even if each of them had a big staff of policy analysts, which they don’t. This is not just an Indian problem.

Finally, electoral politics ensures that legislators are instruments of party leaders more than advocates of their constituents’ interests. Even if we did not have the anti-defection law, party support is key to getting elected. In any case, constituencies are too large and it’s hard to know what voters think on even the most pressing issues. So in general, legislators around the world end up toeing the party line.

Now consider this. If we combine the methodology of open source software development with platforms like wikis, we can harness voice and expertise from the whole of society to come up with good statutes and amend them as and when necessary. Both vox populi and technical expertise can thus easily be harnessed using proven technology. The architecture of a digital democracy needs to be open, publicly debated and thoughtfully designed. Note that this is not some ‘computerised’ decision-making that takes humans out of the loop, but rather, a more effective way to aggregate human genius.

What happens to our age-old parliaments? I think parliaments do perform an important function: they allocate political power and confer it with legitimacy. Digital democracy will continue to need parliaments to make high-level political choices, allocate public funds and hold the executive accountable. MPs should have the power to depart from public opinion or expert determination. After all, they are not merely agents of their constituents, but consolidators of constituents’ interests with that of the larger collective. However, digital democracy will set baselines. Ultimately, the aim of such a digital upgrade is to assign the right job to the right entity: enable every citizen with an effective voice, aggregate society’s expertise in making laws and leverage the political legitimacy that derives from elections. Think of it as separation of competencies.

The executive also needs to be re- imagined for the information age and that is a topic for a future column. But I think an overhaul of the parliamentary structure is overdue, and getting urgent by the day. Political polarization in the US, UK, France and India is perhaps masking an underlying dissatisfaction with the ‘system’ itself, even as China’s authoritarian model advertises its competent superiority.

Unless it embraces the open and the digital, democracy itself is in danger.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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