The value of dialogue in democracy - Hindustan Times

The value of dialogue in democracy

Jul 10, 2024 03:34 PM IST

This article is authored by Krishna Udayasankar, founder and CEO, Kshetra Foundation for Dialogue.

India, the world’s largest democracy, recently witnessed another landmark election, culminating in the formation of a coalition government. This election, like many before it, underscored the intricate dance of political factions and the evolving nature of representative governance. At its heart lies a fundamental principle often overshadowed by partisan strife and electoral manoeuvres: The power of dialogue.

Indian Parliament building. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT)
Indian Parliament building. (HT Photo)(HT_PRINT)

The 2024 elections in India yielded a fragmented mandate, necessitating the formation of a coalition government. This outcome reflects the complexities of a diverse electorate and underscores the necessity of both structured and unstructured dialogic processes in bridging ideological gaps for governance. Coalition politics involve consensus-building, where parties with distinct agendas collaborate to serve the broader interests of the populace, and dialogue can be an effective tool to do so. However, in popular thinking coalition governments are often viewed as less than optimal, bordering on ineffective. The assumption often is that coalitions governments, with the need to satisfy multiple political perspectives and agendas, cannot function effectively with the critical mass that is required to push through development agendas and policy initiatives.

Is this truly so? Or are we perhaps underestimating the potential of coalitions, a potential that dialogic processes can harness effectively.

Democracies, by design, are intertwined with the practice of dialogue. In a representative democracy, citizens delegate authority to elected representatives. However, coalition government, contrary to popular perceptions of being weak and ineffective, in fact give opportunity for more collaborative and inclusive governance models.

Dialogue, as William Isaacs aptly puts it, "is a conversation with a centre, not sides." It transcends the mere exchange of words; it embodies a process through which seemingly divergent viewpoints converge towards common understanding and collective action. The focus, in dialogic processes is on harnessing multiple, even opposing views towards cocreating sustainable outcomes that address any given situation by creating value-positive, win-win solutions. Rather than seeking to find compromise, dialogue aims to harness the potential inherent in dissonance, even disagreement.

In the context of India’s vibrant democracy, this concept takes on profound significance. As diverse political parties negotiate and form alliances to govern, dialogue becomes not just a tool but a cornerstone of effective governance and paves the way for effective collaboration and consensus-building, essential for governance in a pluralistic society like ours. Indeed, dialogue emerges as a guiding principle—a catalyst for forging partnerships, navigating differences, and achieving common goals. By prioritizing dialogue, India can leverage its democratic diversity as a source of strength and resilience in addressing national priorities and advancing inclusive development.

Dialogue’s transformative power lies in its ability to uncover aligned interests amidst apparent discord. What may initially seem like irreconcilable differences often reveal allied goals upon deeper engagement. As political actors engage in dialogue, they discover common ground that transcends partisan divides. This process not only fosters effective policymaking but also strengthens the democratic fabric by promoting unity amidst diversity.

Dialogue, however, can do even more. At its core, India’s democracy is rooted in representation, where elected officials act as stewards of public interest. However, the essence of democracy extends beyond periodic elections—it thrives on active citizen participation and engagement. Any democratic framework, rooted in representation, can and is bolstered by active citizen engagement facilitated by dialogue. Beyond casting votes, citizens participate through discourse, advocacy, and engagement with elected representatives. Dialogue transforms a representative democracy into a participative one by empowering citizens to influence policies, offer community-led inputs and hold elected representatives accountable, thereby transforming a representative democracy into a participative one by fostering inclusive decision-making processes. In the context of coalition governments, where governance hinges on consensus among diverse stakeholders, dialogue ensures that policies reflect the collective aspirations and needs of the populace and steers them into actionable outcomes.

In short, dialogue empowers citizens not only to engage with elected representatives, but also to engage with each other, towards effective participation in governance.

India’s democracy, with its vast diversity and demographic complexity, stands as a testament to the transformative power of dialogue. By fostering dialogue across societal divides—be they regional, linguistic, or ideological—India harnesses its democratic potential to address challenges and seize opportunities. Dialogue promotes inclusive decision-making, enhances social cohesion, and strengthens democratic institutions. In embracing dialogue, India not only enriches its democratic discourse but also harnesses the collective wisdom of its citizens to shape a future that reflects the aspirations of all. As we celebrate the resilience and dynamism of India’s democracy, let us recognize dialogue as its cornerstone—a beacon of hope and unity in the world’s largest democracy.

In essence, dialogue is not merely a means to an end but the very essence of democratic governance—an ongoing conversation that shapes the nation’s destiny and empowers its people.

This article is authored by Krishna Udayasankar, founder and CEO, Kshetra Foundation for Dialogue.

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