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Democracies such as India need more anarchy

Indian parties have turned into election fighting machines. Talking to an anarchist, former British diplomat Cairn Ross, has left me wondering whether not just India but many other democracies might need more anarchy.

analysis Updated: Jul 07, 2018 16:39 IST
Mark Tully
Mark Tully
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan during a book release on the occasion of the National Panchayati Raj Day 2018, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. In Panchayati Raj, decisions are taken at the grassroots and they are scaled up to the district level. (PTI)

John Kenneth Galbraith, the renowned economist who was a much-loved American Ambassador to India, described this country as a functioning anarchy. Most people would say any more anarchy could render India non-functional. But talking to an anarchist, Cairn Ross, this week, has left me wondering whether not just India but many other democracies might need more anarchy.

The anarchist, Cairn Ross, comes from an unlikely background. He was a British diplomat and there couldn’t be a less anarchic, more establishment, and protocol conscious profession than that. But Ross became dissatisfied with the way diplomatic negotiations and decision making were conducted and eventually resigned from the British Diplomatic Service after giving evidence challenging the line the government took in the Iraq War enquiries. Ross then founded an NGO called Independent Diplomat, advising non-State groups on conducting their international diplomacy and advocating anarchy.

For Ross anarchy means no one should have power over others and people should govern themselves. He told me “I start from the premise that democracy is not working well in an awful lot of places including Britain, America and India because people are being governed by small groups only allegedly elected by them”. Ross believes in “a political outlook rooted in the notion of direct democracy in which power moves from the bottom upwards”. The fundamental aim is to take the power to make decisions from those in the British case Ross describes as “the tiny minority in Westminster”, and give it to the people.

How is this power to be exercised? Ross says by communities negotiating among themselves to reach decisions. He quotes the example of Porto Alegre in Brazil, where since 1990 citizens rather than politicians allocate a significant proportion of the budget. Neighbourhoods get together to negotiate budgetary priorities and send representatives to a city-wide assembly. Studies have shown that the result has been a far more equitable distribution of the city’s resources.

But can this work beyond the city level? Ross believes it can be scaled up to the regional level provided the people have the power to recall representatives who fail to negotiate for the decisions negotiated at the grassroots level. However Ross doesn’t think its necessarily desirable to scale this up to the national level. But he adds an important proviso. He doesn’t believe there are many decisions which need to be taken at that level.The party system, usually seen as an essential part of a functioning democracy, Ross described as “by and large a travesty, an engine for corruption.” Electoral politics he sees as “incredibly divisive.”

Panchayati Raj was instituted to do just what Ross advocates. Decisions are taken at the grassroots and they are scaled up to the district level. Although elites can still dominate decision-making with the delegation of financial powers to panchayats, village governance has become more democratic.

Ross’s anarchy may seem to be unrealistic but that doesn’t mean that his criticism of the present state of democracy in India and elsewhere is not valid. Indian parties have turned into election fighting machines. MPs and MLAs claim that they represent the people but they are chosen by machinations and manoeuvring within their parties, not by the people. It is rare for the majority of the whole electorate to vote for the winner. Political fund raising is one of the main causes of corruption. An ever increasing number of decisions in India are taken at the national level. The political rhetoric is divisive and politicians divide people on the basis of caste and religion. Ross maintains that the practice of people negotiating with each other leads to “a deeper order and a much more stable and flexible system.”

In India and elsewhere the faults in democracy are frequently shrugged off by quoting Churchill’s famous description of it as “the worst form of government but better than any other.” But do we have to accept that dismal view? If anarchy is written off as unrealistic shouldn’t democracies around the world at least be seeking to remedy some of the faults in the system as practised today, to make democracy less worst I might say.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 07, 2018 16:36 IST