The limits of public participation in policy-making?

The purpose of this post is to make a somewhat obvious and trite point, which, however, seems to be worth reiterating in current times. Kaushik Basu has a recent column in the HT which articulates this very well:
“Democracy runs on participation, and we Indians are good at that — argumentative, demanding and, should the need be and, at times, even if the need should not be, disruptive. But surely there can also be something called over-participation. In many policy matters there is a fine balance between articulating preferences and taking decisions in hand. Take for instance the Indo-US nuclear agreement 123. This is a matter of great complexity and one has to commandeer a lot of information before one digs in one’s heels. It is clearly not a matter that should be decided by popular support. This is a problem that economists have to contend with more often than other professionals, such as engineers. No one would suggest designing a plane by taking into account majority preferences. But when it comes to designing an industrial policy or setting a target exchange rate or adopting a currency convertibility system, everybody feels that he or she has an opinion that ought to count. Drawing a line where mass participation should end and expertise take over is not an easy matter. To have everybody participate is to risk a policy hodge-podge. To leave it all to the expert is to risk policies being hijacked by small interest groups that the expert may, openly or covertly, be a part of. I do not know what the right solution is, but feel that we human beings would contribute to saner decision-making if we entertained a little bit of scepticism — an awareness of how little we know. We would have fewer fundamentalists if we could be modest enough to admit that the world is full of unknowns and wonders, and realistic enough to know that there is no book of the ultimate secrets of life. … … … Of course, we have to express opinions (and I will in this column) and take decisions, but those opinions and decisions would be much better and more dependable, if underlying them was an awareness of the ultimate uncertainty of nature.”

Clearly, this is a problem that lawyers, especially constitutional lawyers, also have to deal with. Basu’s exhortation seems very relevant to the constituency of this blog as well.


  1. The balance between those two – policy-makers’ depth of understanding versus ill-informed/uninformed society’s right to have its way or at least a critical say in such matters given its collective stake in its outcome – is an age-old debate that reminds me of Plato’s original criticism of democracy. The current system as it was originally designed and as practiced even now to a large extent essentially leaves formal power fully in the hands of the stakeholders but leaves its actual impact on any given issue to how much the lay public is truly concerned/agitated upon it. Thus the real power of the policy pundits in the event of the government rejecting their advice is in their ability to move popular opinion in their favor by resorting to reason. Yet, when the electorate makes a determination, even while dissenting, they have little choice but to defer to it.

    The author’s arguments are really quite mild and his diagnosis correct. I doubt, however, that the answer to fundamentalism is the promotion of greater self-doubt among its protagonists. I would suggest that it is precisely too much self-doubt that leads to fundamentalism in the first place and promoting more of the disease is hardly the remedy. The belief that the world is indeed an ever changing place with competing and often conflicting morals where right is not easily distinguished from wrong, what is right today is held to be otherwise tomorrow, everything thought be true and known are questioned, criticized and many a time eventually discarded. In such an uncertain world, fundamentalists long for that ‘truth’ that is unchanging and everlasting which alone is worthy of their undying faith and belief, that permanent moral anchor to shelter the confused and lead them to ‘light’ in a world so difficult to navigate. Such a role can only be played by some force of religion or ideology characterized by such a unity of purpose and values, a constancy of vision and an uncompromising commitment to a mission to promote them that it inspires such profound loyalty amongst the converted. Neither nationalism in a multi-religious/multi-ethnic nation with the numerous differences and internecine conflicts nor the glorification of a democratic state and its laws/constitution with their operation entirely at the mercy of a fickle electorate nor rationalism of any kind with reason and tolerance as its raison d’etre hold such an irresistible appeal amongst those non-skeptics longing to find that one ‘perfect’ belief system that would justify their complete and undying devotion and their life’s mission in its service.
    Also, fundamentalism is not always a bad thing. Whether it is the Bolsheviks, or the kar sevaks, it is often those militant minorities that make history rather than the indifferent majorities that dominate society. Even in a democracy, they are the ones who define the ideology, organize the cadre and press into action, driven as they are by the desire to shake up things instead of simply going along with the flow. The decline of the Congress party and its inability to restore itself in the states where it stands so emasculated can be traced directly to the utter absence of any ideologues or ideology worth a name that is potent enough to inspire such a committed following. Back-room deal making, political posturing and communal balancing in ticket allotment can only take a party so far – perhaps prolong its eventual and inevitable decline. Finally, history is replete with instances where believers triumphed over the non-believers. So I would not say that it is on the whole a bad thing – it is undesirable only when it when the energy it unleashes violates the requirements of individual discipline necessary in a democratic society. As long as this tendency for violent disorder is curbed, the sentiment can and has been harnessed towards worthy goals.

  2. Dear Dilip,

    For once, I find much to disagree with in what you’ve set out. Allow me to be a bit testy and provocative in my reaction, which will hopefully allow us to continue our exchange. (Perhaps this is a reflection of my frustration at the lowering of exchanges on the blog more generally).

    Your argument here is a very good illustration of how the use of clever logic and rhetoric, and the tactic of juxtaposing things which are actually quite distinguishable from each other, can be employed to persuade others to one’s point of view. But, as in most such situations, paying close attention to the initial premises shows the problems with drawing connections between quite unrelated issues.

    Your basic argument seems to be that fundamentalism is caused because of self-doubt among policy makers (for which, by the way, you provide no further evidence beyond stating so). You then jump from that to the current state of the Congress party, and its many woes. What is the basis for the claim that the Congress is where it is today because of the existence of intellectual self-doubt – or an adoption of the value off skepticism – among its leaders? You may be right in stating that there is an absence of any guiding ideology in the Congress, but how that does tie up with the issue of self-doubt? I think you set up the Congress party’s existing status quo (which few people would be able to, or would want to, defend) as a straw man to bolster your overall argument. One would need a much better example of a virtuous, able leader whose intellectual self-doubt led to a decline in his/her leadership prowess to be convinced on this point.

    Also, what is the necessary connection between being skeptical (and allowing a measure of self-doubt in ones thinking) and an attitude of “going with the flow”? Are careful thinkers and leaders necessarily bogged down by uncertainty? Are all decisive leaders necessarily right?

    I think you pin way too much blame on such an attitude of intellectual skepticism. I’m afraid none of the examples you suggest make me more inclined towards either fundamentalist or strongly ideological movements. All you have pointed out is that these movements may lead to great and sudden changes. Granted, but you fail to focus on whether such changes are always good ones, and whether all change leads to progress along some linear lines. The test you provide (something about violating “individual discipline”) is too vague and too fuzzy to be put into practice, and this makes your prescription all the more disturbing.

    It may be worth recalling the ideological underpinnings of the Project for the New American Century, an understanding of which enables us to appreciate so much of the basis of current US policy, both domestically and internationally, especially since 9/11. George Bush and Tony Blair have sought to be decisive, strongly ideological leaders, who sometimes do not seem possessed of an iota of self doubt. These contemporary examples of the trend that you are seeking to endorse should give us pause in cheering you on.

    I look forward to your response,


  3. Dear Arun,

    I welcome your response and hope to address here some of the questions you have raised. I join in your lament that though the membership of our blog has grown, dialogue has not commensurately expanded perhaps owing to other more pressing commitments of members and other regular readers here.

    In the second paragraph of my previous comment, I was really referring to fundamentalism as a political movement rather than to the specific fundamentalist beliefs of policy-makers. Perhaps I did not make this clear there when I leaped from talking about policy-makers in the first para to talking about fundamentalism more broadly in the second. Notwithstanding my comment at the end about the positive benefits of such belief (which I explain below), the thrust of my contention was not so much a moral judgment of fundamentalism but an effort to answer the question: what makes it tick? What is the impetus behind its inception and the winds of discontent that contribute to its rise as a force to contend with? I did not say and do not believe that fundamentalism is caused by self-doubt among policy-makers. Rather I think that fundamentalism is an offshoot of and a reaction to a culture of self-doubt in society. And policy makers, who seek the support and legitimacy of popular political groups to gather and retain influence, must contend with that line of thought as well in coming up with propositions.
    Next, my reference to the fortunes of the Congress party: how did the party transform itself into an organization with mass support in the first place? Because, its leaders at the time held steadfast to their goals – a principled opposition to foreign rule, a commitment to social reform, etc. through all the years, the jail terms and every other obstacle that came their way. It is well-documented how Gandhiji’s struggles against untouchability were deeply unpopular with much of society and many of the party’s supporters as well. Can one point to any such mass leader in the Congress today willing to stake his position and support all on a cause even when it might be counterproductive from the standpoint of immediate electoral calculations? Sure Gandhiji was constantly revisionist in many respects but on those critical questions where his legacy has endured, he showed little self-doubt and stayed the course. There was little at that time in terms of real evidence to show that self-rule would turn out to be successful in India at least in the long term, seen as the country was, more as an amalgam of smaller nations with little in common and a predilection for numerous petty conflicts, to keep it intact. Nor was his faith in non-violence whose power derived more from his unshakeable belief than any convincing evidence of success of a parallel strategy in previous historic struggles as a successful weapon to end foreign dominance. On both counts, skeptics and predictors of doom were many. Had he wavered and accepted compromise formulas at the expense of his ultimate goals, or done an about-turn and followed it up with some new spin to put a gloss over it, would he have remained the idol of millions as he remains to this day? In contrast, one only needs to look at the UP debacle to understand the current problems of the party. Salman Khurshid was, till recently, in charge of the unit. He is certainly an affable, well-read, articulate and charming individual with experience in government. My own feeling is that he would make a good minister in the government – one who can certainly formulate policy, sell it to key stakeholders and navigate his way through or around conflict. Yet, he does not come across as an ideologue and I can think of few others who can convincingly articulate any dogma or moral reference framework that drives their party’s goals or agenda – all we hear about everyday is their position on a particular question depending on the exigencies of the day. The party cadre today too is driven less by ideological zeal and more by the pecuniary or other material benefits potentially accruing to their person as a reward for their participation. I went on one such campaign some years ago and saw what makes the ‘worker’ tick – money, booze, and the promise of dubious favors after the election in contrast to the local BJP candidate who had sangh workers doing all the scut-work gratis.

    More specifically, you ask what the connection is between self-doubt and the absence of a guiding ideology of the Congress. Ideology represents the ideal state of things that is the expected outcome when most or all aspects of the belief system have been accepted and implemented largely or in toto both by the state and the public. The requirements of such an ideal system are of course never met in practice and the reality of administering a state is usually much more complicated than that requiring one to take note of inconvenient facts that contradict the neat outcome that ideology predicts. Thus the two vital aspects of organizing/leading a political movement – the ideologue’s goal of articulating the mission, the strategy to go about achieving it consistent with the values of the organization and selling it to the masses as well as that of the policy-maker/administrator who, when his party realizes power, is actually tasked with implementing the agenda to realize the promised change – must emphasize different aspects. For an ideologue, facts and present reality are primarily a template for transformation, vital only in deciding the outline of the dream that can move hearts and minds whereas for the policy-maker, that reality is more an indication of the feasibility of change and the costs of attempting it. Self-doubt is thus of less use to the ideologue but of much value to the policy-maker. Yet, the policy-maker cannot function on his own for he owes his very authority and legitimacy to the fruits of labor of the former. Leaders, especially those at the helm, must don both hats and no meaningful change is possible with a leader languishing in self-doubt at critical moments or failing to demonstrate the singular tenacity of purpose required to see his policies through at least until that point of maturity is reached where history can judge his actions fairly through the wisdom of hindsight. The Congress party, which has of late even portrayed its lack of ideology as a good thing, has numerous policy-makers but that absence of a guiding ideology has robbed them of the authority that comes from operating within an ideological matrix which is why leadership is rarely transformational, only transitional and weak at best even then.

    There is no direct connection between skepticism and ‘going with the flow’; it is indirect to the extent that skepticism may cause a leader to be indecisive or simply so wary of the prospect of failure that he fails to challenge the mainstream view of the time even when he is fully aware of its failings. Nor are decisive leaders right all the time. However, I am sure you are well aware of the saying that success comes only to those who dare and those who try to never be wrong, rarely get anything right either.

    Coming back to the point I made before, society does need people who do not doubt question the wisdom of everything they are told – the foot soldier in the army who must believe in his mission to be able to devote himself completely is an example – but my reference is not to policy-makers whose very job description requires the opposite. A segment of the populace in virtually every society does not value self-reflection and that mindset, with the right kind of responsibility and circumstances, can act as a virtue.

    As for George Bush and Tony Blair, my contention is that their political support and legacy have been undermined not so much on account of their decisiveness or ideological affinity to the PNAC but to what is widely seen as a campaign based on half-truths, exaggerations and deceit that they adopted to coax their respective countries to war in Iraq. As we know, there are numerous problems with the war in Afghanistan as well, yet the approach towards it in both legislatures is quite different and much more focused on ways to address them through changes in the means of engagement rather than a demand for a quick withdrawal.

  4. Dear Dilip,

    Thanks for your considered response. I did not doubt even earlier that your views on fundamentalism sought to describe rather than prescribe, and your fuller response makes that very clear.

    I do not doubt that fundamentalist ideologies have historically played a role in guiding societies and change. One example (and I can’t recall where I read this or even if my recollection of this is factually correct) is of how Bhagat Singh and Azad’s virulence against the British Raj forced the more establishment-oriented Congress (including at thatt time Gandhi, who was yet to return the medals that the British govt. had conferred on him) to start taking a more strongly anti-colonial stance. The argument, if I remember it right, was that these young revolutionaries (who were ideologues) forced the more careful and overly-reflective Congress leaders to take decisive steps towards full independence.

    And, as you point out, ideologues have the advantage of charisma which draws followers. It is indeed difficult for a leader who demonstrates intellect and nuance and a capacity to take each issue on its merits, to attract the masses in a big way.

    So far, I agree with you. But, I would need to see more examples of the kind of ideological movements that you see as a virtue. The foot soldier example is perhaps not the best one. We have historical examples of what happens when foot soldiers don’t reflect upon their orders, from Nuremburg to the more recent Abu Ghraib. While soldiers are lauded for their acts of bravery and mass killing in pursuit of national objectives, there still seems to be a line that they can’t cross. Where that line is drawn is not always clear. Is the guiding rule that everything goes so long as you don’t get caught? I’m not usually prone to citing Hollywood films to buttress points, but the opposing sides of this debate were quite convincingly portrayed in the Cruise-Nicholson film, “A few good men”.

    One way of understanding what you are saying is to make a distinction between the ideologue who gets the leader into power, and the policy-maker who can exercise self doubt in decisions and advice the leader on actual governance. But, as you said, its a complicated relationship. I am thinking here of Karl Rove’s role in the White House. Clearly, Rove is going to be remembered as a very successful election handler, who knew just how to get Bush elected twice (or once, depending on your view of the 2000 election). Yet, even conservative Republicans agree that his advice to Bush in the White House wasn’t always very good. The two require very different skills and strategies.

    In any case, thanks for the stimulating exchange.

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