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Opinion Columnists 05 Apr 2016 The weak links in ou ...
The writer is a former member of the Planning Commission and author of Discordant Democrats: Five Steps to Consensus.Courtesy The Billion Press

The weak links in our discordant democracy

Published Apr 5, 2016, 12:22 am IST
Updated Apr 5, 2016, 12:40 am IST
Institutions in the middle should provide spaces for listening to other points of view.
Indian Parliament. (Photo: PTI)
 Indian Parliament. (Photo: PTI)

India is rightfully proud of many of its democratic institutions — its Constitution, its systems of electoral democracy, and its independent judiciary. These institutions are becoming overwhelmed by contentions within India’s plural society and democratic polity. Parliament is finding it hard to function. The courts are clogged with too many cases. The administration is overwhelmed by the complexity of issues it does not have the capacity to manage.

Issues can be raised in the public space and the country is open to citizens’ protests — on the streets, in the press, and increasingly in a hyper-active social media — but they cannot be resolved there. Slogans and placards draw attention to problems, they cannot describe a complex situation. The social media allows many points of view to be expressed in tweets and expletives. Discussions on TV are not designed to illuminate the public mind.


Lately many questions have been arising about the capabilities of India’s institutions to deliver what citizens expect from them. There is too little debate in Parliament even when it is functioning, which sadly is not often enough. It takes too long for matters to be settled in courts. Indeed, as the public sphere becomes more open, with the Internet and social media, the greater is the pressure on formal institutions — of legislature, judiciary, and administration — to “do their job”, and the more overwhelmed they become.

In 2011, when the growth of the Indian economy began to slow, a group of experts — representing diverse stakeholders — convened by the Planning Commission, from diverse disciplines and, took a systems’ view of the Indian economy to find out the root causes for its sluggishness. They found that a growing mistrust of citizens in institutions of governance and contentions amongst stakeholders were slowing down the development of policies as well as implementation of projects. They found that for the Indian economy to grow, and that too in an inclusive and sustainable manner, merely “economic” fixes (such as interest and tax rates) won’t be enough. India’s institutional framework must be improved.

A weakness in India’s democratic institutional framework that has become evident. The layer of quasi-formal institutions for deliberative democracy that must lie between formal institutions of governance on one side, and institutions in the open public sphere is too weak in India.

A strong middle layer of quasi-formal processes of democratic deliberation would take up issues that are raised in the public space, conduct systematic deliberations amongst stakeholders, and strong outline the structures of the solutions required. Such processes must engender understanding of issues for solutions to emerge. In this way, the formal institutions that have final decision-making authority can be relieved of the need for extensive dialogue for which they do not have the capacity. Good processes for democratic deliberation will help to restore public respect for the capability and authority of the country’s formal institutions which is eroding.  

Standing committees of Parliament and public commissions of inquiry are examples of institutions in the middle. They operate between the open, public sphere and institutions with formal, decision authority. Trip-artite labour commissions, and multi-stakeholder commissions for evaluating environmental and social impacts of projects, are other examples. The purpose of these intermediary institutions must be to enable an understanding of systemic issues from many perspectives. They can do this without the pressure to take decisions, which is the prerogative of other formal institutions. The quality of the process of dialogue has to be the essence of intermediary institutions.

Institutions in the middle should provide spaces for listening to other points-of-view. They are containers for dialogues, not platforms for debates, nor forums for decisions. Debates are adversarial forms of deliberation. In decision-making forums, such as parliaments, the power of contestants is measured in the votes they can muster. The debates in such decision forums are often pro-forma and sometimes even dispensed with before getting to the vote.

On the other hand, the purpose of a good dialogue is to create an understanding of many points of view. At the end of a good dialogue, everyone wins, and all can move together towards solutions. Institutions of deliberative democracy, between formal democratic institutions and open democratic spaces are the backbone of a good democracy. They are places for dialogues, not debates, nor decisions. They provide space for discordant democrats to come to agreements.