The reform conundrum

Arun Maira. Photo: Shailendra Pandey

The manifestations of change may be everywhere. But change at the level where people want it seems to inhibit the Indian experience, and it is this failure which has triggered Arun Maira to address institutional reforms. He brings to the theme his long experience as a thought leader and his fairly recent one as a member of the country’s Planning Commission. He says that cellphones, ATMs, flyovers, the Metro, a new airport et al — a citizen in, say, Delhi has them all. Yet there was something he did not have that led him to vote out a government.

Maira’s thesis is that the man on the street wants institutions that respond to his needs. That’s the subliminal text of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) phenomenon. AAP’s challenge to the established political order has generated support from a surprisingly wide spectrum of society, from rickshaw-drivers to CEOs. However, the methods used by the upstart party caused some to pause.

As is obvious, institutions provide order to our lives. Institutions are also the vehicles which enable societies to progress. According to Maira, “Changing institutions to redirect progress is a risky exercise, like redesigning the aircraft in which we are flying. When people lose trust in established institutions, they must be reformed. How should this be done? This was the question that Edmund Burke, the British statesman, and Thomas Paine, the American thought-leader, who had come together to support the American Revolution, debated in the 18th century when they took opposite sides in the French Revolution.”

Both Burke and Paine agreed that institutions must be reformed for society’s betterment. But they disagreed about the methods. Burke recommended “a gradual process of evolution modelled on the way nature makes change.” Paine preferred revolution, which displaces the old order entirely to make space for new institutions. According to Burke, what is permanent about nature is change. Natural systems have the ability to change because they keep something constant, as an anchor, while the rest changes. The anchor that gives stability to society and prevents change from turning into chaos, in his view, is the monarchy and the peerage around which elected governments could bring reform. Paine saw Burke’s case for preservation and his prescription of acceptable processes for reforming institutions as arguments to protect the establishment’s vested interests.

According to Maira, the two laid out the positions of the political Right and Left that have permeated democratic societies since then. The Right is conservative in its approach to institutional change, the Left revolutionary. Right and Left are terms applied mostly to economic ideologies today. Whereas political parties offer choices in their political ideologies too.

The question before democracies goes beyond being formed by elected representatives. Both believed that governments must be accountable to the people. Burke supported the American Revolution because the British government had failed the American people on both these counts. Both also believed that governments must be by the people — they must participate in shaping policies and decisions that govern their lives. In fact, Burke insisted that politics is not a matter of individual genius but one of joint activity directed to a common cause.

Beliefs are shaped by individual experiences, and each person can only know a part of a complex reality. There are limits to what even the more representative democracies can provide.

Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions Arun Maira Rupa Publishers 211 pp; Rs 595
Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions
Arun Maira
Rupa Publishers
211 pp; Rs 595

That brings Maira to spell out his central thesis. Two hundred and fifty years have passed since the great debate between Burke and Paine. The 21st century has commenced with a noticeable decline of trust in elected governments in India and in the West too. The demand for governments by the people is at an all-time high and democratic institutions must evolve.

Modern technology seems to provide the means to listen to the masses. Millions can express themselves online on social media platforms. However, as policy-makers using these mediums of communication have realised, their vast reach and speed may make democratic communication more difficult. What is the signal emerging from all that chatter on social media platforms? How does one ensure that democratic principles are at work when obtaining inputs electronically?

The basic issue thus boils down to this: “A modern radar system must be designed for democracy’s airplane. India, the world’s largest democracy, facing an upsurge of demand for citizens’ participation in governance, must be a leader in meaningful innovations, keeping in mind the fact that the digital divide is yet to be bridged.”

Timely advice at a time of regime change in India!


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