Apr-Jun 2012

Book Review: Discordant Democrats

India has lately witnessed the rise of a people’s movement unlike any in recent memory. People across the country have come out in protest against what they perceive as a variety of systemic evils, expressing strong views and opinions on issues like corruption and probity in public life. This movement has also created many armchair critics who freely voice their views but may not necessarily have made an effort to understand the nuances of how a democracy functions. Against this backdrop, Arun Maira’s “Discordant Democrats” aptly describes the times we live in and has special relevance in light of events that have recently transpired.

“Discordant Democrats” gives the reader practical tools and principles to make democracy work. It is a self-help book of sorts, only its goal is to help us make our democracy function better. Structured in two parts, the book follows a very simple narrative format that lends itself to easy reading, and Maira effectively dots the book with examples to illustrate his ideas. Using the backdrop of his Gurgaon residence, he analyses the working of the Residence Welfare Association to explain how a democracy functions (or does not function) at the grassroots level.

The first part of the book makes a case for why we need more dialogue in India to achieve consensus and for democracy to function effectively. Le Corbusier’s Plaza, originally conceived as a place where citizens would gather to debate the issues of the day, is now empty and devoid of democratic discourse, observes Maira. Using an analogy well suited to the increasingly computer savvy reader, he argues that while most democracies have adequate hardware (structures such as a constitution, institutional set up and electoral process), the difference in performance can be attributed to their software (dialogue, discussion and deliberation). He reminds us of India’s long tradition of dialogue and tolerance toward different views. “Nevertheless, there is discord in India, as there is in most democratic countries – perhaps because democracies bring out discord. India’s destiny is to prove that people of different religions, of many races and speaking different languages can live different democratically – in one country of many people,” writes Maira.

The second part of the book brings out the consultant in Maira. He prescribes a five-step process to build consensus. The first three steps – aligning of aspirations, clarification of underlying theories in use and correct framing of the situation and problems – establish the foundation required to form a consensus. Comparing these steps with the first three gears in a car, Maira says that once the foundation is strong, we can cruise along in the fourth and fifth gears (steps four and five), which are finding solutions and taking decisions. Maira uses excellent examples from various industry conclaves to illustrate the five steps, thus adroitly reinforcing his points, and also suggests tools that come in handy at each step.

Maira’s prescriptive manner and examples in the book make it appear as though the process of achieving consensus is a rather easy. If anything, it is a long journey and requires skillful maneuvering. With a driving instructor like Maira, one can start looking at proliferating the new WMDs, tools that he calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. One step at a time.

Discordant Democrats by Arun Maira

Reviewed by: Kumara Guru, Director, External Relations, ISB

Publishers: Penguin, Viking 2007

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