The next stage of democratic evolution is long overdue



India must change, from darkening elected authoritarianism to building institutions for the inclusion of citizens in governance

The human body, like a nation, is made up of structures and processes. A bony skeleton holds it together. Processes such as respiration, blood circulation and the formation of new cells give life to the body. When the vital processes weaken, the body becomes unhealthy even though the framework is strong. And when they cease, overwhelmed by infection, life ceases and bones remain to be buried.

Elements of a democracy

A democratic nation, or any nation, is also made up of structures: its constitution and its laws. What distinguishes democratic nations from authoritarian nations is the liveliness of citizen participation in the governance of their nation. In healthy democracies, citizens participate effectively in shaping the policies and laws that govern them. Democratic constitutions provide for elected assemblies for citizens’ representatives to develop new policies and pass laws.

Open deliberation in these fora is necessary to meet the demands of democracy. It is also essential for finding good solutions to systemic problems that need to be viewed from multiple angles. When these forums become chambers for closed partisan politics, they cannot find solutions to the complex systemic issues that all nations must grapple with in the 21st century: climate change, historic inequalities, growing economic inequalities, and violence bubbling with discontent. inside. The houses of the US Congress appear to be paralyzed by party politics; debates in the Indian Parliament degenerated into battles on the ground with missiles; and the citizens of many European democracies are appalled by the performance of their elected institutions.

Constitutions, elections and assemblies are not all a democracy needs to function. Yet this is what the simplistic view of the United States of converting nations into democracies seems to suggest – in the wake of its armed interventions in many nations. Democracies live on what happens outside elected chambers and what happens between elections. People who belong to different political factions, practice different religions and have different histories in the history of their nation, must listen to each other and learn to live together democratically every day of their life. Therefore, what healthy democracies need most are processes of democratic deliberation among citizens themselves.

Widening of cracks

Unfortunately, the cracks in the Indian nation dividing “people like us” from “people not like us” are widening in institutions at the top as well as in relations on the ground. The majority electoral systems of democracy will harden these divisions in India, as they are in the United States. Therefore, more robust processes are urgently needed for democratic discourses among citizens themselves to knot the national fabric before it becomes unraveled further.

The media, which provided a space for diverse perspectives to be heard, is divided along partisan lines. And social media, presented as a savior of democracy by allowing citizens to freely listen to many points of view, has proven to be a hardener of divisions. Clever algorithms have created echo chambers of people who love each other and don’t listen to those in other chambers, and hurl hate bombs through the walls.

Discussions of India’s chronic problems that call for new solutions have become debates over whether the origins of the problems were in the days of the National Democratic Alliance or in the days of the Progressive Alliance. united. It seems that in any discussion of what is afflicting the country, whether in parliament, in the media or in social gatherings, one has to consider whether one supports either the political power in power or its opposition. There is little room for thoughtful, non-partisan deliberation among citizens.

Take a new step

It is time to take the next step in the evolution of democratic institutions. Kalypso Nicolaidis of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, says: “The consent of the governed goes beyond elections or periodic referendums. The process of deepening the reach of democracy remains the same as it has been for the past 200 years: a struggle to expand the franchise. This time around, it is a right to vote that is not necessarily expressed through the right to vote in periodic elections, but rather through broad inclusion in the political process in all its forms. A civil society movement, Citizens for Europe, proposed a solution: a European Citizens ‘Assembly – a permanent transnational forum for citizens’ participation and deliberation.

Words of caution, however. Citizens for Europe explains the drawbacks of purely online methods, which civil society groups in Europe have tried, to know., “The risk of accentuating ideological divisions and excluding groups affected by the digital divide”. Online forums should be complemented by real dating. On the other hand, just bringing people together in a room does not create the conditions for thoughtful deliberation. Everywhere, elected assemblies are divided along partisan lines. James Madison, a drafter of the American Constitution, had anticipated it. He wrote in Federalist Article # 55: “If every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would always have been a crowd. It’s not just the quality of the people in the room that matters. Citizen meetings, online or offline, should be properly designed and professionally facilitated to allow all perspectives to be heard and new ideas to emerge.

I come back to the analogy of the human body. The human body is a complex system made up of many complex organs and processes – the heart, brain, liver, digestion, respiration, self-healing, etc. Breathing is a very simple process – it’s the first a baby learns as soon as it comes out of its mother’s womb. Yet we forget how to breathe well as we grow older. Yoga teaches us that learning to breathe well can tone all of the complex systems of the body and mind.

The missing dialogues

Human societies are also complex systems, made up of many formal institutions and many processes of interactions between people. Listening as well as breathing is a basic process.

We forgot how to listen well, especially “People Not Like Us”. In schools, we are taught to speak well and to win speech contests and debates. There are no lessons on how to listen well, and no awards for the best listeners. We only listen to “what” others say; we don’t listen to understand “why” they believe what they do. Often times, we stop listening even while another is speaking, mentally preparing our retorts to win a debate. The dialogues to be understood are not the debates to be won. They are explorations of complex problems by combining the knowledge of various people.

Monocultures of thought can be as sterile as monocultures in Nature. Diversity in the composition of participants is essential to ensure that complex issues are fully understood and that new ideas can emerge. However, the diversity of opinions can create cacophonies if the deliberations are not well managed.

Read also | The decline of democracy

The time has come to learn to listen well, not just to speak well; and to conduct dialogues, not debates. The assemblies that Emperors Ashoka and Akbar led centuries ago in India provide models. The technologies of democratic deliberation have advanced since the days of the Athenians, Ashoka and Akbar, as explained by James Fishkin in When the people speak: deliberative democracy and public consultation. The soft power of India, perhaps the most diverse nation in the world, will increase when it returns from the now darkening elected authoritarianism to lead the evolution of institutions for citizen participation in democratic governance. .

Arun Maira is the author of THEListening to well-being: conversations with people who are not like us


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