Reviewed by Devangshu Dutta
As I read through Arun
Maira's book, the month unfolded with a number of high-pitched
disagreements around the world. In India, quotas and reservations
were a hot topic, as was an apparent divergence between the Prime
Minister and corporate chiefs on executive income and distribution
of wealth. Self-appointed moral police disapproved the expressions
of a student of art, while, elsewhere in the world, suicide bombers
expressed disapproval of foreigners on their soil.
We are surely not the first to wonder why, after millennia
of physiological evolution, societies around the world are still
stuck in the same, predictable response: where disagreement
(on an issue) translates into disapproval (of a person), more
often than not leading to conflict that is frequently violent.
The need to accept differences and the use of democratic dialogue
as a process to close the gap is the basis of Arun
Maira's Discordant Democrats. While the book
is largely about democracy in India, Maira draws from events,
personalities and initiatives around the world to make the case
for democracy as the only reasonable mechanism to manage diversity
in society, and dialogue as the only reasonable mechanism to sustain
This is embodied in a quotation that is commonly attributed
to French philosopher Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In fact,
Maira goes beyond free speech to the need for mass dialogue.
While free speech typically stops at the "right to express different
opinions", dialogue is about the free "exchange" that can move
people closer. Dialogue, unlike debate or argument, is not about
sticking to one's own point of view but about parties reaching
a consensus through a process of mutual expression and understanding.
When comparisons are made between Communist China and democratic
India, democracy is presented as the millstone around the neck
of India's development. India has a demographic diversity that
is among the highest in the world, and a body politic that is
among the most fragmented. It is the disagreements among the
various segments, interest and pressure groups that some people
often hold up as the biggest hurdle to India's economic and
social progress. On the other hand, the advocates of "democracy
in action"; may hold up noisy debate as the true expression
of desires of individuals and small, otherwise powerless, groups.
And there is little common ground between these two groups.
But, as Maira writes in the preface: "This book is about democracy
and about consensus: two ideas that cannot but be associated
with India. Indeed, one must wonder whether India could be one
country without democracy or without consensus."
Maira takes a middle path, in differentiating between the
"hardware" and the "software" of democracy. He describes the
hardware as the mechanisms that we are all familiar with —
the Constitution, devolved institutions and the framework of
free and fair elections, whereas the software is dialogue and
deliberations. The democratic hardware enables the freedom of
divergent expression. But it is the democratic software that
enables a convergence to consensus and the emergence of a functional
rather than dysfunctional society.
This is an important distinction when we examine the relative
success or failure of countries that are all apparently democratic
in structure. Most elections may be free and fair, but are the
results later really representative of the electorate's wishes?
From what we can see around us, the hardware of democracy is
robust, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the software.
Maira devotes the latter part of the book to tools that he
calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. Using topical and real-life
instances of the dialogue mechanism being applied, he takes
the reader through the steps of creating a common aspiration,
exploring and identifying the thought anchors of the parties
in the dialogue, framing the situation and then arriving at
As a comparison, the example of a Native American tribe comes
to mind. To resolve conflict between members, the tribe follows
a structure that requires a member to silently listen to the
other's views and then express that person's views back to him
until he or she concurs that the listener has completely understood
what has been said. Only then does the first listener get the
opportunity to express his own views, while the first speaker
only listens and then reiterates what he or she has heard.
This mechanism may appear lengthy in most modern debates,
but when we are dealing with issues as complex as the evolution
of our cities or the uplift of disadvantaged castes and socio-economic
classes, do we really have any other option?
Our genetic response to crisis is hard-wired from our days
in the wild: fight or flight. While the latter is clearly "escape",
the former is also an "exit" because it shows an inability to
deal with a discord to a mutually satisfying result. We need
to expand this to a trinity of responses that includes "unite"
- an integrative process that can help cope with the complex
and interrelated world we live in.
There are few alternatives to dialogue. The tools may look contrived
and slow to those championing the cause of "action". But in a
world where discordant democrats do not often listen to each other,
Maira's Weapons of Mass Dialogue are definitely worth a try.
We want action. And we want democracy. Sometimes,
in despair, when that speedy action is difficult in democracy,
he seemed willing to forsake democracy. But that is a cop-out.
We have to find a way to have both - speedier action and more
democracy. Once again, a very important "either-or" choice is
raising its head. We must convert it into a "both-and"
solution. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the difficult problems
that we face with the same thinking that led us into those problems.
Rather, we must look into the theories-in-use that are causing
the problem, and develop a new one. In this case, the problem
with our theory-in-use of how people can work together to resolve
problems that they are all part of. The call for an authority
above them, "insulated from the intense pressure of democracy"
- a dictator or expert that they would be willing to unquestioningly
delegate upwards to - is giving up on the further evolution of
humanity's democratic enterprise.
Published in BusinessWorld, 6 August 2007