India is Losing the Deliberative Nature of What a Democracy is to be: Ambassador Pavan Varma - Press Trust of India

October 10, 2016

Ambassador, Pavan Kumar Varma, former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) recently delivered an insightful public lecture on the theme of 'Is India, The World's Largest Democracy, Deliberative?' at a joint conference on 'Deliberative Democracy, Institutions, Law and People', organized by O.P. Jindal Global University and Centre for Deliberative Democracy of Stanford University in New Delhi.

The international forum has brought together leading experts from across the globe to deliberate and discuss the finer nuances of discursive democracy, a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision making as it adopts elements of both consensus decision making and majority rule.
Professor (Dr.) C Raj Kumar, Founding Vice-Chancellor, O.P. Jindal Global University and Dean of JGLS, delivered the welcoming address. He remarked, "A deliberative democracy is identified by the profound respect for citizen voice and participation, along with dedication to non-partisanship. It posits that anyone directly affected by an issue, deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. The debate on deliberative democracy is truly an important one."
"I am delighted to welcome Ambassador, Pavan Kumar Varma, a distinguished parliamentarian and an accomplished writer to join us in this discourse as we discuss and reflect on some of the most central and larger issues surrounding the theme of the conference," noted Prof. Kumar.
Delivering the distinguished public lecture on the subject of, 'Is India, The World's Largest Democracy, Deliberative?', he said, "Deliberative democracy is an increasingly pivotal subject in the evolution of our democracy and much of what is happening as our democracy evolves, is that there is a semblance of a dialogue; there is the expression of different points of view, but that varied expression rarely takes place within the format of a dialogue. It is therefore a cacophony and not a dialogue in a deliberative sense. To my mind such a practice is a great paradox."
"We are numerically the world's largest democracy, but at the same time have very few institutions which can facilitate the possibility of an institutionally structured deliberation, as a sub-set of the functioning of that democracy," he said.
Highlighting the necessity for having a level playing field as a pre-requisite for deliberative democracy, Ambassador, Varma said, "We are part of an incorrigibly hierarchical society where, deliberation itself is a very loaded word, and so when you talk you must remember that there is in deliberation also the infusion of social inequity, and unless there is a level playing field, deliberation is never as effective as you like it to be. As a society we must endeavor to create a level playing field for effective deliberation."
Outlining the benefits of employing mechanisms of deliberative administration since independence, he said, "One of the greatest dividends of 70 years of democracy in India is that hitherto marginalized and quintessence constituencies have been empowered sufficiently to not only have a voice but to be in a position of strength to fight for their rights."
Ambassador, Varma further spoke on the complete absence of a formalized debate mechanism in the electoral mechanism of the country, and said, "There is no system of a formalized debate between electoral candidates who are standing in a democracy. I have seen this from close quarters. While there is a multiplicity of candidates, each of them has a position which is determined by the party to which they belong."
"There is no forum that exists as part of the institutional framework of democracy where leading parties and their representatives either answer queries from the constituents or engage in a dialogue on substantive issues between themselves. To me, this is a great weakness, where the voter is the only loser," he noted.
Describing the idea of setting up the panchayati system of administration and the travails that followed due to the absence of a transparent deliberative process, Ambassador Varma, observed, "Even smaller units like the panchayat, that were conceived at the grassroots level to promote some elements of a deliberative interaction have been overtaken and monopolized by political parties."
"The panchayats control the distribution of state resources at the local level and there is a huge fight to get to win those elections. There is no deliberative interaction to choose the best candidate or who best represents the interest of the voter, but the race is to define how many panchayats each political party controls," noted Ambassador Varma.
In his closing remarks, Ambassador, Pavan Kumar Varma said, "There is a cerebral laziness, in the average educated India in terms of demanding accountability with regard to the deliberative process, we don't ask for it. By now, we don't even expect it. In the competitive world of democratic politics and in the euphoria of having become the world's largest democracy, we seem to have lost or are fast losing the deliberative nature of what democracy is to be."
Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of legitimacy for the law.
The 2 day international forum has brought together leading lawyers, legal scholars, regulators, academics and public policy practitioners from across the world.