Arun Shourie and the back door democrats

I was there in a conference in Prague last winter immediately after Diwali where Mr Arun Shourie was the lead speaker. Luckily he stayed on for  duration of the conference (2-3 days) after his keynote address of 2 hours. There were some signs of sour grape frustration coming forth even then. A much milder edition of Jaswant Singh’s when he felt sidelined at the time of campaign. However, it was not indiscriminate intemperate cacophony that you witness on TV screens these days. He is well read and was very articulate as he only can be. He garnished his lectures with a sense of humour, wit, a lot of couplets and lots of anecdotes from his stint with the wily Vajpayee (yes wily – not his words though).

HIs recent comments during an interview on Narendra Modi and his one year of Governance is spot on. BJP loyalists may not have liked it but he is spot on. I agree with him almost entirely. He has done what a true friend should and one should feel lucky to have such course correcting feedback – it is better to have them from friends than opposition.

But then lets rummage the context …

One needs the likes of Yogi, Sadhvi, and Sakshis for getting votes … any party would require them. They are the worker bees who do all the dirty work, arrange crowds for the meetings, network with people at ground level, mobilize money (by means fair or foul) and sweat it out. Their main strength is their closeness to people and their ability to mingle at the lowest level and if needed dispense instant justice in some cases.

These are the kinds of people who win elections. But then once they win the elections intellectuals like Shourie, Swamy, NK Singhs, MJ Akbar, Bhushans and Jairams want to take over and dictate to them – an unfair division of duty i feel – you do all the dirty work in democracy … but i will feel entitled to dictate to you on what you should do or should not thereafter. Swamy will feel entitled to dictate what fighter-jets to buy and whether at all to buy… security threat be dammed (and no accountability), army be damned, Modi be damned, and the elected representatives be damned. A kind of ‘you run the race, I will walk away with the trophy’.

But unfortunately often times their ideas are drawn from History (past) or Geography (western or westernised countries) but they scarce possess a ‘smell of the local soil’   which is so essential in my opinion for designing workable programmes. They wont even retain their deposits, if they contest elections. I wonder even if we created a reserved constituency only of economists how many intellectuals vying for position would manage triple digit votes. But these people want to have a disproportionate say in guiding our destiny by way of back door democracy.

Just consider this. Our bureaucrats have lost touch with ground level. They couldn’t care less. Our Judiciary  looks indifferent, slothful and arrogant at times. They seem to serve just the lawyer community. Has any RBI Governor gone to the Dharavi slum to understand their financial plights, credit delivery – is it too difficult? Will any Planning Commission Dy Chairman go and live a couple of days in the suicide zones or with any family who has lost someone due to crop failures or credit worries and understand their plight. Will any human rights commission chairman go to Camac St or Naupada and converse with the patrons or service providers (or Health Secy to orphanages) on their woes to come up with meaningful solutions. No.

The only person close to the ground on date is the politician and we are actively dis-empowering him through various methods including court ridicules, PILs, oppressive media, and copious supply of oppressive advice pungently delivered, etc.

Way out

Over two decades back, i was on a trek in Nainital on the day before Holi. it was a 12-14 km stretch into the hills and jungles nearby and i had done it with random people who i had met in the market. The owner of a roadside tea-stall  in one of our many stops to warm ourselves on that cold day was somewhat boastful about his  acquaintance/ friendship with the Congress Politician N D Tiwari. He claimed that he would often come there and have tea with them and that NDT knew them personally. I could not but help a wry smile. I didn’t believe him.

But then i checked on this in a couple of places. They acknowledged that NDT was from somewhere in the vicinity and that he knew most of them by first name. One of them mentioned that he could readily recall the name of some 17,000 such traders, shopkeepers in his constituency (incredible, but people say that of Napolean also) . He would greet them when he passed by and occasionally stop by to have tea with them, gossip and catch up – a kind of mass direct contact. I have subsequently heard this about him from 1-2 others in Delhi as well.

NDT was primarily a politician but also a successful administrator, never mind his permanent state of uprightness below the belt. There is no substitute for such intimate knowledge of the ground level and its smell for designing effective governance or developmental solutions.

I think that we should develop more such leaders – with both knowledge of the ground smell and developmental knowledge and a sense of flexibility in learning from others and evolve place and context specific solutions. It is my opinion that the Bhushans and Bhagwatis of the world lack this and NDTs and Narasimha Rao have in plenty.

Can you tell me which economist designed or was the brain behind Chinese transformation, Japanese resurgence, progress in Korea, Malaysia, Singapore etc. None. You would be hard put to recollect any name. It was all politicians efforts. But India is floundering. It is because it has continuously been guided, goaded or constrained by people who never faced the challenges of elections and never had the responsibility of facing the voters so that they are forced to listen to them and deliver what they consider to be of value.

At best we should reserve some 10% seats to such ‘intellectual’ back door democrats (may be each party can follow  the dictum) with a promise they will shut up if they fail to convince their voters. If they believe in our democracy they should come up through the same.

Does it mean that those losing elections or unelectable should lose their rights to critique … that too in a democracy where freedom of speech is guaranteed … sounds cruel. But then consider this. Imagine a Parveen Sultana or the Rajan and Sajan Mishra duo performing on the stage. And we also have a clutch of reporters and critiques on the dais critiquing them parallelly, and the front row audience jeering … audience telling them how to sing the next lines. Will it bring out the best in them.

Swaziland has a system of mobilizing such ideas. Whosoever wants to represent people has to present his ideas in their town hall. And the people will elect 4 of them to contest elections the winner going to parliament. Lots of people who have brilliant ideas can first test out how salable their ideas are.

Well as Clement Atlee said ”Democracy means government by discussions, but it is effective only if you can stop people talking”.

3 thoughts on “Arun Shourie and the back door democrats

  1. Interesting! We have politicians that have an ear to the ground and we have intellectuals who are theorists with no connect with people on the ground.

    What then explains people who win votes, have a strong connect with people, have their ‘support’, and then inflict a venal system of governance? In fact, we have a situation where the corrupt politician claims the ‘support’ of the masses as his/ her proof of innocence. The justice system is designed to be anti-majoritarian. Also as Atticus Finch says in “To kill a mockingbird”, – “The one thing that does not abide by majority opinion is one’s conscience.” Also, democracy cannot and must not mean rule by majority in opposition to the minority. Which is why in many democratic systems, checks and balances for prevention of misrule/ egregious misuse of power and protection for identified minorities is in-built.

    So, to posit the argument as a simplistic one between a politician who is one of the masses, and the high intellectual in the ivory tower is to assume that the former will always have the right solutions. Until we can find people that possess both qualities- of being in touch with the people and also having high ideals we will have to make do with a mix. I am not sure the ‘10% quota’ is the right prescription. While I grant you have more than a point, it is not as straightforward as you have made it out to be. We did once have a leader of the masses with high ideals- we call him the Father of the Nation….

    Aside of the high ideals, we also need people that can think through the consequences of policies and have an intimate understanding of the people. You do not necessarily need the Sadhvis, Yogis and Sakshis. There are superior alternatives I am sure. There is Rajendra Singh, the water man for example. There are others. What prevents us as a polity from throwing up better alternatives?

    In my opinion, any policy formulation we must have the following ingredients- a. A strong understanding of the impact of the policy on the constituents that could be affected b. An ability to diagnose and develop robust solutions c. The ability to sell it (that is what politicians can do) and, d. Right motivations guided by a sense of morality

    The ‘democrats’ you have talked of are superb salespersons and perhaps they are also good at understanding the impact of policy. The Swaziland case you have mentioned optimizes for a. and c. Still, pt. b.- problem definition/ diagnosis and solutioning are not general skills. Morality is another issue altogether; many may not agree with this as being a utopian fantasy. I believe we will get better at identifying people with these qualities as we evolve.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. very valid point…..Modi seemed to be the perfect foil for it….having the support of the masses and success in delivering the goods (10 years in Gujarat…at least on the economic front)…. but somehow he seems to in no-mans land now…. are both Arvinds (Mr. Arvind Panagariya and Arvind Subramanian) to blame or Is it Mr. Jaitley?


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