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An ode to consensus

Can democracy really reduce discord? Arun Maira's new book suggests a roadmap for reducing conflict.

By Arnab Mitra | Print Edition: July 15, 2007

John Kenneth Galbraith, celebrated economist, Indophile and former us Ambassador to India, had once described this country as a "functioning anarchy". Arun Maira's engaging book Discordant Democrats, Five Steps to Consensus takes a long, hard look at democratic institutions in India and how they simultaneously take India forward on some counts and back in others.

Maira, who is Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group India, delves into his own bag of experiences-both personal as well as professional-and questions "the belief that democracy automatically reduces discord". With examples drawn from the housing society of Heritage City, the complex in which he lives in Gurgaon, to the debate over how to improve the living conditions and infrastructure in Mumbai and also the bloody wars in West Asia (where countries like Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are functioning or nominal democracies), he makes out the case that democracy, by itself, cannot eliminate discord. "In fact," he writes, "democracy brings to the surface latent differences and makes discord more visible."

What, then, can be the remedy? Maira warns against the one-size-fits-all approach and takes a mild dig at corporate managers and consultants who thrust the "best practices" of one company or institution down the throats of everyone who's willing to listen, without considering whether the "current reality" of the recipient of such advice is conducive to such a solution.

In the context of India, the author points out that this country is more complex than any other nation-it has 22 official languages, several races and almost all the world's major religions. The obvious implication is that the country cannot survive without democracy and consensus. That is where the "idea of India"-an idea that diverse people can live together, democratically and peacefully, as a nation-comes in. Its problems must be solved by involving every stream of thought in the public discourse on the nation's future-this will ensure that not just politicans, but people from all walks of life take responsibility for shaping the world. "Weapons of mass destruction must be replaced with ways for mass dialogue," he says in a catchy one-liner.

But India, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote, "is a country where, for everything that is true, the opposite is also true". Building a consensus on any issue is difficult. Maira, who spent most of his professional life advising people and companies on how to overcome obstacles, has a panacea for this-he suggests five graded steps which he feels can help evolve consensus on contentious issues. The argument has merit, but can it be translated into practice? In a country where lawmakers frequently break into fist fights on the floors of various legislative assemblies, it looks difficult. India's challenge, after all, is its passionate but discordant democrats.

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