Is democracy a commodity that can be quantified, weighed, assessed and even assigned a value? Is it something which, as Chief Executive Officer of NITI Aayog Amitabh Kant asserted recently, a country can have “too much” of? Speaking at an online event last Tuesday, Mr Kant, in response to a query, had said that it was difficult to carry out what he termed as “tough reforms” in India because the country was “too much of a democracy”. Although he subsequently denied making such a remark – a denial belied by video recordings available of the event where he can be seen and heard making such a statement – the unstated assumption behind his assertion is worthy of more serious consideration, not the least because it is one that is widely shared by many in our country.
That assumption is that the democratic process of decision-making, involving as it necessarily does a plurality of voices and interests and the equal weight that all such voices theoretically carry in a democracy, is inherently inimical to quick or efficient decision-making, and the ability of an administration to execute large-scale transformation.
Mr Kant is a career bureaucrat with the government, but is designated CEO in the corporate style, to better stress perhaps, the non-bureaucratic approach that the organisation he manages would like to bring to its assigned task of “transforming India”. The remarks possibly also reflect the frustration felt by most CEOs in the corporate world at one time or the other, of having to deal with an organisation that is either unable or unwilling to execute their vision, and being hampered by being simultaneously answerable to multiple stakeholders with conflicting goals – promoters, investors, creditors, vendors, customers and employees – “too much democracy” in other words.
But such a belief betrays both a lack of understanding of what a democracy is, as well as an inability to see the true root cause for the failure to have everyone fall in line with one’s vision and decision. In both corporate organisations, as well as noisy democracies, a successful leader is one who manages to convince the majority of the “greater good”. Democracy is fundamentally about discussion, debate, and yes, even dissent. But at the end of the day, it also about compromise, consensus and cooperation.
Achieving this is not easy. Mr Kant is, in a sense, quite right in saying that tough reforms are not easy in a democracy. But it also equally true that a true democracy is about a rules-based order. A working democracy is about, after recording one’s differences and striving for change, ultimately accepting the majority view and complying with it. And India has demonstrated that it is a thriving democracy time and again. We have the world’s noisiest and most hotly-contested elections – but once the results are in, we accept and work with the winners, even if we didn’t vote for them.
To someone who is convinced that she or he has all the necessary answers, the process of reaching consensus and acceptance in a democratic manner may appear unnecessarily cumbersome. Mr Kant, in that same talk, had gone on to quote the example of China, and asserted that it would be difficult to compete with China without “hard reforms” – carried out, presumably, in the Chinese way, via central decree. But Mr Kant has forgotten an important bit of Chinese history. Who knows how powerful China might have been today, if it hadn’t been for the grievous error of Mao’s “cultural revolution” and the “great leap forward”.
Mao was a powerful leader, with a clear vision and the drive to make China the greatest power in the world. But that did not mean he had the right answers or knew the correct way forward. The lost years of the “cultural revolution”, when more than one-and-a-half million people lost their lives, was to set China back by decades. If governance by diktat was the solution, Stalin’s Soviet Union would have won the Cold War. If the democratic system was inherently inefficient, then the world’s leading economies would be “efficient” dictatorships, not liberal democracies.
Blaming the democratic system for the failure to achieve speedy growth is, at best disingenuous, and at worst, duplicitous. Democracy is not the reason India failed to deliver on its potential all these years. Rather, it is the workaround that we have devised for our failure to achieve true consensus – selective appeasement of interest groups and the subversion of rules-based decision-making through corruption and governance capture. To paraphrase Mr Kant, it is not the quantum of democracy which is the problem, but its quality. For democracy to work, all stakeholders have to commit to making it work. Yes, the government “worked” during the Emergency – but that did not mean the nation progressed. India’s reforms may have been slow in coming, but they have lasted – because of democracy, not in spite of it.