This Brainstorm on the future of our republic has been interesting, elegant and insightful, and hopefully it may even stimulate the thinking of a few who are open to a genuine dialogue. Often in Indian public discourse we are reminded of Thomas Edison’s words: “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort, to avoid the labour of thinking.”
The recurring theme of the debate so far is the gulf between our traditional attitudes and liberal values. Clearly, the constitution, laws, institutions and policies – not merely as declarations of intent, but as practical tools and a road map to bridge this gulf and achieve the desired goals – are critical in shaping the future of our republic. Excessive emphasis on societal attitudes and traditional values will lead to fatalism, just as excessive optimism about the limitless possibilities of technology in transforming our society will lead to irrational exuberance. The bridge and road map for the collective are as critical as individual freedom in the marketplace and free exchange of goods and services in promoting, liberty, wealth, prosperity and harmony.
Far too many people are now using democracy as an alibi for our failures, for we reduced democracy to voting and shouting without meaningful participation, empowerment and ownership. A democracy works when short-term political success and long-term public good are substantially, if not wholly, aligned. If we create structures, institutions and practices that inevitably create irreconcilable conflict between political success and public good, then such a democracy is dysfunctional, and the republic is in peril. The key to this alignment between power and public good has to be as local as possible, in a way the voters become citizens and the links between the vote and the public good, taxes and services, and authority and accountability are manifest to most, if not all, people on a daily basis.
What we need is an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom: people commit mistakes, but learn from them; successes are replicated; voters become citizens; people become owners and sovereigns; enlightened self-interest trumps sectarian or parochial prejudices. This is the political equivalent of millions of free individuals exchanging goods and services for their own gain, and the unseen hand of the market delivering optimal outcomes to the whole society.
There is space and need for protest. But if a million mutinies have no direction or outcome, and only act as a safety valve, it is enormous energy wasted. Far too many things the state ought to deliver are in appalling state – education, healthcare, basic services, rule of law, local governance. As a result the ‘mutinies’ and ‘movements’ have to expend tremendous energy and exhibit uncommon heroism to achieve ordinary deeds. Any nation that demands extraordinary efforts for pedestrian outcomes, or relies on messiahs and invests touching faith in ‘superheroes’ and ‘maximum leaders’ is in for perpetual underachievement and disappointment.
A great and prescient Telugu poet, Gurajada, wrote nearly 125 years ago – well before our national leaders even thought of a free India: “A nation is not a piece of earth; it is the people.” The sooner we give up our addiction to panaceas and quick fixes, the more willing we are to recognize that people make their own collective destiny if only they are empowered and enabled to understand the consequences of their choices and actions, the faster we will successfully address our dilemmas. The real question is, are we, the elites, ready to overcome our pet peeves and narcissism of small differences? Are we ready to trust our people to make choices, commit mistakes, imitate best practices and improve the common good out of enlightened self interest, just as they participate in the market for their own benefit and facilitate collective gain; not as acts of great nobility and sacrifice?
India’s vastness, diversity, remarkable eclectism, and five thousand years of continuing civilization make us unique. From the global perspective, our success is critical for stability and harmony around the world. As the Economist pointed out:
India, lest it be forgotten, is as populous as 150 other countries combined. By encompassing all of these people in a single political entity, it dramatically reduces the complexity of global governance—even if it does not always feel like that. Had the republic not succeeded in refuting Churchill, had it disintegrated into multiple sovereign states, the world’s negotiating tables might have needed to accommodate dozens of additional quarrelling players.
I am an eternal optimist. Human societies always learn from past experience – their own and that of others. We need to accelerate this process by reimagining the Indian state and allowing genuine participation and ownership. The inchoate discontent of millions of long-suffering people in itself cannot transform our institutions. It needs purposive action backed by clear consensus among the elites – political, bureaucratic, media, academic, and intellectual. I hope this Brainstorm, in some small way, contributes to that process of building elite consensus.