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A great deal of agreement

Indian politics is beset by too much consensus,not too little

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
June 20, 2013 4:42:29 am

Indian politics is beset by too much consensus,not too little

It is often said that the besetting sin of Indian politics is lack of consensus. This lack of consensus makes decisions difficult; everything is subject to a thousand negotiations. We are diverse in so many ways,that a dissensus-producing cacophony seems our natural condition. There is some truth in this superficially correct view. But as often,the surface of Indian politics hides a deeper truth: that our besetting sin may not be lack of consensus,it is too much consensus. We do not get much done because we agree too much.

All societies need some degree of consensus,particularly on constitutional essentials. But our consensus in political matters runs much deeper than that. For all the hoopla over reforms,the development models of all political parties look pretty much the same: the particular differences are due to the timing and context when they were in power. The standard contrast that the BJP cares for growth and the Congress for welfare is so overstated that it cannot even be considered seriously. Both are incremental reformers. Both reform largely when impelled by crisis,and the variations in their stances are variations of circumstance not conviction. Both believe in the rhetoric of the poor first. After all “antyodaya” was a Jan Sangh invention. Both believe in a welfare state,and will gladly expand a range of entitlements,as BJP governments have been doing in states. Both have a roughly similar approach to major subsidies. Both have socialists who turned liberalisers and vice versa. Neither believes in small government. Even Narendra Modi,with his slogan of less government and more governance,was at pains to make it clear that he did not mean small government. Both have roughly the same approach to institutions: they are instruments to be used by those in power,not instruments to protect against them. Both have come around to the same model of affirmative action. Even on secularism,where you might trust the BJP less,their practices are closer to each other than debates over trustworthiness might suggest. The list could go on. Neither has cared much about sanitation. Both think the environment is of secondary concern,both have equally confused and marginalising policies on tribals; in foreign policy there is also more continuity than discontinuity. These similarities actually extend to most political parties.

At the state level,even governing styles look similar: excessive reliance on strong chief ministers to deliver the goods. But these similarities extend even deeper,to subtler aspects of our policy imagination: the conceptual imagination that drives Modi’s Ahmedabad does not look very different from Delhi’s. Tier two and three towns across India look more alike than dissimilar,almost as if a common failure of imagination has gripped us. There may be some genuine disagreement over federalism. But even here,it is probably less a clash of developmental models than a clash of interests that is producing a logjam. No one would argue that the GST is a bad idea,but they will contest who gets what.

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There may be good reasons for this consensus. Contrary to what its critics suggest,the first-past-the-post system may not distort representation as much as we like to believe. By making every small group potentially relevant,it creates the conditions of a consensus-oriented politics. It may be that theoretical options actually narrow down in practice: power mitigates intellectual differences.

But the consensus paradox is this. There is actually more fierce contestation and blocking of decisions precisely because there is so much underlying agreement. When there is deep consensus,the ground of the conflict is no longer disagreement. It is harder to differentiate yourself on the basis of ideas. On most things,it is not open to the opposition to say that that the ideas and policies that underlie a government’s stance are wrong. The grounds for criticism are usually different. The grounds for criticism are that the government has been a general failure,that there are implementation issues,that a government is being moved by ulterior motives,that the government is corrupt and so on. If Parliament actually functioned,most parties would find themselves in a great deal of agreement. So the only way in which you can create space for yourself,or measure your own success,is not by defeating someone else’s idea; it is by blocking its implementation. You may sometimes need to feign a disagreement in order to do that,but the disagreement is never a genuine contest of ideas. Often,people are surprised at how protean Indian politicians can be in their stances: for FDI one minute,and against it the next. But this is entirely the consequence of a deep consensus: the only game you can play is thwarting,and your tactics will shift accordingly.

It is not an accident that in the coming election you will not see a huge contest of ideas. Even in the debate on Modi,there is a subtle shift. It is something of a tribute to Indian democracy that he has tried to shift the ground of his appeal away from Hindutva,though not surprisingly,the Congress wants to keep moving back to that ground. The debate has shifted to something else. There is contestation over his claims to being efficient. Again,efficiency is another one of those terms that signifies deep consensus: the ground is not what decisions someone takes,but whether they implement them. Or the debate is over his authoritarian personality. Most of those opposing him have few qualms about his ideas; they do worry about what his success might do to India’s power structure.

But even within small group deliberations in government,this dynamic obtains. The most intractable conflicts are often not over what should be done,but who should do it. They often involve not disagreement over ideas,but judgements of trust. I may agree with you on what should be done,but don’t trust a particular agency to do the thing in question well. The other paradox of consensus is that consensus requires a negation of ego; if all agree,all should get credit. But the structure of competition in these settings is such that it requires you to differentiate yourself. But what will that ground be,if not ideas? And so the ground shifts to more inchoate fears.

It is precisely because we agree so deeply that we are less able to resolve small differences. For it is only in those small differences that we distinguish ourselves. Our besetting sin is not deep disagreement,but the narcissism of small differences. The solution to that may not be more consensus,but more contestation.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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First published on: 20-06-2013 at 04:42:29 am
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