VIEWPOINT - The New Indian Express (Kerala), 1 October 2002

Kerala's New Champions of Democracy

We need deliberative democracy in the context of reforms.


Early this week, a respected current-affairs TV programme ran a story on democracy -- thousands of unemployed youth unleashing violence across Kerala. The voice-over proudly asserted that gutsy youth who brave the police are guarding democracy in the State. You may recall that the Chief Minister and eminent citizens were also part of this "democratic" festival. Thank God democracy is alive and kicking here. What fools we were to think otherwise.

What fools we were to think that democracy meant discussing issues in a civil manner, and finding out solutions to take society forward. What fools we were to assume that the government would present its case, seek public opinion and then take a well-considered decision -- especially while overhauling our economic and social structures.

This article is a plea for clarity on deliberative democracy -- why we want it, and how we can make it work in the context of reforms in Kerala.

Antony announced the rollback on seeing that "people" were unhappy with the tariff hike. For a moment, let us shed the hypocrisy. Did Antony or his colleagues expect people to welcome a hit below the belt? Apparently, the protesters displayed the common man’s anger. Funnily, such cries never swell from these men when their political bosses are in power. So much for claiming to represent public opinion.

Weeks before the tariff hike, CPI(M) had decided to protest against the "pro-ADB," "anti-people" policies of the Government. By timing the tariff hike to co-incide with planned protests, the Government only chanelled the violence to KSEB offices, and minimised the damage to other offices. A neat tactic of disaster management.

Interestingly, disaster is how you would describe the reform process too. Look at the tariff hike. It does make economic sense to raise electricity charges so that KSEB can buy expensive thermal power. But it makes political sense to effect tariff hikes through a State Electricity Regulatory Commission and convince the people why a tariff hike is necessary.

A largely independent regulatory Commission can protect consumers’ concerns to an extent (for example, monitor KSEB’s efforts to increase its efficiency). It can also help to deflect the political pressure on the Government. While reforms in Andhra Pradesh and other regions include State-wide public hearings organised by regulatory Commissions before every tariff revision, reforms in Kerala prefer to be democratic -- we delay the setting up of the Commission, reportedly to suit a bureaucrat’s post-retirement plans.

The Government has not changed its style of politics. Nor have the people changed theirs.

Clearly, the Government has not changed its style of politics. Nor have the people changed theirs. A few dozens of KSRTC buses attacked, public property damaged, and slogans against ADB. As if that will solve the crisis in electricity and other sectors.

How far can violent public action really help us? It may be effective in the short run -- forcing the Government to succumb and the capitalist to yield. But if we are sincere about developing the State economically, we must also move towards deliberative democracy.

At best, the stick-wielding goon can prevent us from moving in the wrong direction. But he has no suggestion to solve our collective problems; he cannot lead us forward. He’s anti-ADB, anti-privatisation. But pray, what is he in favour of? We need to encourage active brains (not brawns) who suggest alternative measures for solving crises. Democracy loses meaning if its procedures do not help to reach solutions for taking society forward.

Is it too much to expect a self-proclaimed "democratic" Government to explain its reform ideas, alleviate people’s fears and seek public opinion before embarking on reform measures? Meanwhile, we need to build an active civil society that does not dance to the Pied Pipers of political parties. With journalists’ support, these organisations can channelise ideas of experts and citizens, and actively campaign for progressive government action.

While we publicly discuss issues by adopting a problem-solving approach, my friend the TV journalist may not get stunning visuals of protesters writhing in pain. But for the State’s long-term welfare, perhaps, he might be willing to shed romantic notions of street violence, and a warped understanding of democracy.

Note: This is the original unedited text.

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