Under my byline

Weapons of mass dialogue

Posted in Books, Living, Q&A by Rrishi on 3 June 2007

Q&A: Arun Maira

Arun Maira, Discodant DemocratsDiscordant Democrats: Five Steps to Consensus
Arun Maira
Penguin
pp 224

With its citizens speaking dozens of languages, professing several religions, and being of different ethnicities, how does India function as a democracy? And, is India’s “noisy democracy” holding up economic development? In this book, Arun Maira, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, India, says that politics cannot be left to politicians, and suggests that democracy can be made to work more effectively through the use of WMDs — “weapons of mass dialogue”.

You have a quote from Eckhart Tolle at the head of one chapter about the present moment being small, but concealing the greatest power. Could you give us an example to show what you mean?

I use this wonderful quotation, about the power in small things, to compare the source of power in weapons of mass destruction, which lies in the tiny atom, and the source of power in ways of mass dialogue, which lies in listening to another person. The author of this quote was making the point that interactions between people are the sources of changes in societies.

What makes a successful public–private–people partnership?

Any genuine partnership requires consensus between partners about the goals of their enterprise and the principles by which they will work together. Therefore all successful p-p-p partnerships must be based on consensus in these matters.

Gurgaon, where you live, is sometimes presented as an example of what India’s cities may become — the best and the worst. Could Gurgaon be better governed by means of consensus?

Gurgaon is an evolving city in a democracy. Therefore people are going to have to come to agreement with each other on many things, and there will have to be an understanding between the government agencies and the people also, for the city to function. Without consensus between parties involved, decisions will not stick.

Do you see India as an urban nation in, say, 30 years? Will this make India more democratic?

I do not think one should jump to the conclusion that urbanisation equals consensus. After all, China is urbanising very rapidly, as is India. However, one country is a democracy and the other is, by most people’s reckoning, not.

Do you see stronger urban local government as a possible trend?

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has recognised that a key to improving the functioning of Indian cities is more democratic and more effective systems of urban governance. Therefore the funds from the mission are being given to cities — for their infrastructural improvements, etc. — only if they simultaneously put in place a process for improving the city’s governance.

You offer Switzerland as an example of a consensus democracy. Would a similar highly federated structure make India more democratic?

India has a federal structure already. Also the trend in India is to devolve more power down to local bodies — even in cities and in villages. Federated and devolved structures require more people to participate in decisions that affect them.

Therefore such structures enable more democracy. And they require many more people to learn to work with each other democratically. Which is why I suggest that India needs to propagate skills for democratic decision-making to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people.

Can Indians as a whole evolve habits of reasoned discussion without being more alike, socio-economically?

I do not think the ability to reason and to understand others is the purview of any particular socio-economic class. Many rich and formally educated people are very intolerant of others’ views, and many poor, less schooled people are very willing and able to listen. Of course each will express themselves best in words and idioms they know best.

Therefore for dialogue amongst people with different perspectives and different ways of expressing themselves to understand each other, it is necessary to encourage the use of different mediums of expression amongst them.

Does India need a crisis to see that it is time for radical thinking in how we govern ourselves? Do you see such a crisis coming?

We should not wait for any further crises in our country to make us improve the way we work with each other. However, a crisis of aspiration will spur us. By a crisis of aspiration, as distinct from a crisis in our condition, I mean that we begin to see that we can now achieve much more if we improve the way we work together and the way our democracy is functioning. That can concentrate our minds to consciously and systematically improve these processes.

Can good, even if radical, solutions come out of a consultative process?

It is important to understand the problem before jumping to a solution. One person may not be able to see all the perspectives. A large group in which all think the same way does not help either. The group has to be diverse and people have to be willing to express their points of view. The issue in India is how to take advantage of diversity — a source of great innovation and creativity.

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