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THE POINT OF DEMOCRACY
- Why is there no democratic dialogue in India'

A couple of months ago, I spent some time in Luxemburg. I could not meet the Prime Minister because he was away in Brussels conferring with his fellow European Prime Ministers. But I conferred with four ministers including the foreign minister and the minister of the economy. I went to Luxemburg with considerable skepticism about the EU experiment. Continuing to maintain the paraphernalia of parliaments and ministries in every member country after they had all joined the EU seemed extravagant to me. The numerous EU institutions housed in vast buildings looked like bureaucracy run riot. Sprinkling the institutions all over Europe seemed designed to waste people’s time and transport facilities. And the innumerable committees holding meetings, tying up so many ministers and bureaucrats, and taking years to come to the most modest decisions, seemed an extraordinarily inefficient way of running a government to me.

One of the things I discussed with the Luxemburg ministers was their reaction to Lakshmi Mittal’s takeover of Arcelor. One of them had reacted adversely. The Indian press had gone to town over this, reading in his hostility parochialism, racism, xenophobia, Indophobia and every other sin. I asked the ministers the reasons for the hostility. They denied every emotion that we Indians had attributed to them; and upon reflection, I realized that the emotions had been attributed without any evidence at all, and certainly without talking to anyone in the Luxemburg government. The Indian press had embroidered an explosive, emotional story around a single statement that supported none of the pyrotechnics, and avoided all on-the-ground investigation.

The ministers’ responses could be summarized to say that Mittal had surprised them: that he had not talked to any of them. This response sounded strange to the liberal in me. After all, enterprises should be freely transferable, and Mittal had a perfect right to take over Arcelor if he could marshall the money and persuade enough of Arcelor’s shareholders to sell their shares. The US government would not have expected Mittal to talk to it if he wanted to take over a similar steel company in the US; nor probably the British government. So while I was in Luxemburg, I was a bit mystified by this insistence on talking.

Then, the reason slowly dawned on me as I watched the proceedings over Singur sitting in Calcutta. There were a number of parties involved: the West Bengal government, the residents of Singur who were going to be replaced, their political leaders, Mamata Banerjee, and the Tatas. It struck me that throughout the Singur affair, these parties talked to everyone except one another. They were aggrieved, agitated or in conflict; they could have sorted out their differences only by talking. But they never talked to one another. Instead, they held public meetings and talked to people who thought like themselves; they organized processions and shouted slogans at a random selection of people who happened to be within shouting distance; they talked to the press, which converted their differences into banner headlines. They did everything within their power to magnify their differences; they never sat down together and look to bridge their differences. After Mamata had gone on hunger strike, Buddhadeb offered to talk with her. But she was not interested in talking; she only wanted the Singur takeover to be nullified. Ratan Tata too offered to talk at a very late stage in the proceedings; but he sounded choosy about whom he would talk to, so no one took up his offer. The entire Singur affair was settled by the muscle power of the government; although West Bengal is a democracy, its method of resolution of differences was no different from that of the British government that preceded it, or indeed of a pure dictatorship.

Why did it never occur to the elected government to settle differences by talking to the affected and to political opponents' Evidently because its concept of democracy does not involve peaceful resolution of political problems. The way the communists look at it, the role of democracy is simply to decide who is to rule West Bengal for five years. Once elections have answered that question, the electors are taken to have given the government power to decide such questions as compulsory transfer of land from some farmers to some industrialists.

This view of democracy is not peculiar to West Bengal or to the communists. It is impossible to watch the proceedings of the West Bengal assembly. But I often watch the proceedings of Parliament when I feel my level of cheerfulness is dangerously high; Parliament is a wonderful antidote for cheer. I watched Lalu Prasad present the railway budget. I only watched, because I could hardly hear him. He was made inaudible by half a dozen members of Samajwadi Party, who stood in the well of Parliament and went on shouting the same monotonous slogan again and again, protesting against the threat that the Central government might throw out to the Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh and impose President’s rule. SP may be considered a party of hooligans. But I have seen members of the Bharatiya Janata Party similarly sabotage proceedings with slogans about Bofors. This is a relatively mild form of sabotage; some weeks earlier, members of the Trinamool Congress went about wrecking furniture in the West Bengal assembly. Clearly, these venerable vandals must think that they are doing something useful — that they are exercising their democratic right of protest, or carrying out their duty of protesting against injustice. Just as the West Bengal government believes that an electoral victory gives them the right to compulsory acquisition of anyone’s land, the protesting MPs think that their own election to Parliament gives them a right to stop Parliament from working.

If that is what they think, then what of democratic dialogue' Parliaments are debating societies above anything else; their entire procedure is designed to facilitate orderly discussion. They have formulated elaborate rules about how debate is to be conducted; and they have a speaker who uses those rules to lead an orderly debate. Speakers have extraordinary authority in other Parliaments. Long ago, when I lived in Canada, I used to watch the Canadian Parliament on television. Whatever pandemonium was going on in that Parliament, the speaker had only to stand up, and everyone fell silent.

So I am no longer sure that those European politicians are wasting their time. Arcelor is a big employer in Luxemburg; its steelworkers were liable to be worried and upset by a hostile takeover. The Luxemburg ministers instinctively felt it to be their duty to manage the takeover — a major event in their polity — peacefully and smoothly. They took it as their job to find solutions to public problems that were the most acceptable to those involved and affected; and they found the solutions by talking, negotiating, cajoling. This is what European democracy is about. I think we, the world’s greatest democracy, have missed out on something somewhere. We may be the world’s greatest talking shop. But we talk past one another, and not to one another. Democracy is a ritual for us, not the problem-solving instrument that it is for the Europeans.

Two roads diverged in a yellow

wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I

could

— Robert Frost

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