Recently on Republic Day, the Jaipur Literature Festival saw a mind-stirring session in which the Indian-American Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee advocated that sustainable good governance is possible only through the active participation of strong opposition in the administration of public affairs. He also postulated that the empowerment of the poor, by being provided with freebies and the largesse of assets, leads to sustainable development of a nation. It is truly a revolutionary insightful conception in politico-economic thought. His inferences take us back to the time-tested ideals of middle path, on the basis of which the UN rolled out Sustainable Development Goals a few years ago with the same objectives for a safe and progressive world.
Banerjee was clear in asserting that a weak opposition denotes a democracy of tyrannical government, in which case the authoritarian policies can hardly bring about economic success. Conversely, frail governments will not be able to take a decisive stand on important matters for want of coalition support, as a result of which the business of the public issues will remain in disarray. The situation is a reminder of an age-old adage ‘Discipline without freedom is tyranny and freedom without discipline is chaos’.
An admixture of both freedom and discipline in a proper manner will fetch intended outcomes. Here ‘proper’ means ‘just right in proportion so as to realise desired level of quality and quantity in service delivery’. Likewise, the ideals of right governance (or just governance or good governance) turn into realities when there is neither of the two extremes, feeble or authoritarian type, but that of moderation between the two.
Buddha talked about moderation more than two millennia ago. Aristotle also professed his idea of golden mean whereby any virtue, according to him, is a mean of two extremes, each of which is a vice. Modern research too shows that both extreme sadness and extreme happiness can trigger broken heart syndrome, leading to cardiac problems.
By this logic, super strong ruling parties are detrimental to the health of democracies unless they are bridled by commensurate controls. So, having an equally powerful opposition helps the ruling party to be cautious of its own decisions and policies from the ‘divergent’ perspective of what the Lebanese-American philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb used to remind about ‘negative knowledge’ (what is wrong, what does not work).
It is in this context that the element of sustainability holds a key role in the survival, success and endurance of good governance. In layman’s terms, the sustainability of good governance, juxtaposed to bad governance, relies on its capability to survive the present as well as the future without compromising its quality and quantity while delivering service promptly to the citizens.
Then, what are the factors that render the system of any governance unsustainable? Of course, there are many. Absence of the feel of ground realities drives the process of prioritisation to be faulty. Non-adherence to checks and balances makes the governance to tend to act outside the limits of the Constitution. Lack of a robust opposition results in lacklustre and namesake debates in Parliament or Assemblies.
Insufficient information on the state of society and non-accessibility of the common masses will let deliberations go astray and decisions lopsided. Rigidity to stagnated practices will prevent the wheels of socioeconomic progress from moving ahead. Not responding to changes in tune with the modern outlook of the citizens and the contemporary world scenario will drag the system into abuse. If too much of legislation making takes away the freedoms of citizens, omission of essential regulatory mechanisms will throw the mind of society in utter uncertainty. Consequently, the very basics of democracy and governance in a sovereign republic will fall apart.
Hence, the most fundamental quality of a republic lies neither in its being non-monarchic nor in the democratic rule through majority vote but in its inherent essence of the dialectic approach to rule of law over the affairs of the nation. Dialectics entails the sequential amalgamation of thesis, antithesis and synthesis of any public matter.
What the ruling party proposes usually becomes thesis. Unless the opposition performs its responsibility to raise the front of antithesis, the finality of the proposal is not fully complete in pros and cons sense. Because, synthesis can only emerge as a coherent whole of all perspectives. Once the sequence is through, the best form of policy or decision comes to hands.
It is thus only on account of a powerful opposition that what not to be done comes into focus, thereby aiding the powers in governance to desist from embarking on avoidable damaging moves. As we are aware, global history is witness to many a cataclysmic eventuality when the mighty ruling parties in some nations voted arrogantly, inter alia, for wars, nuclear proliferation and environmental degradation as the oppositions remained weak without a forceful voice.
In the light of such worst human tragedies and material devastations, what are the options available to control if a political party comes to power with an unprecedented huge majority, relegating the opposition parties to almost non-existence? Eminent journalists Fareed Zakaria and Swaminathan Aiyar rightly argued that the ruling party, holding the reins of governance in such circumstances or otherwise, must place checks on its own unbridled authority.
They have put forth metaphorically an apt analogy of Odysseus. While on return voyage from the Trojan war, he and his sailors had to pass by the island of demonic Sirens, whose enchanting songs could force them to halt for their subsequent destruction. Odysseus sealed the ears of his men with wax so that they could not hear Sirens singing. He ordered his crew to bind him to the ship mast so that he himself could not plunge into the sea for the Sirens’ tempting songs, and accordingly, all of them stayed safe. This mythical episode stands out as a critical lesson for the powerful political rulers of landslide majority so as to enable themselves to exercise restraint while holding high offices and framing crucial policies.
Therefore, a rational combination of Odysseus-esque ruling party and an antithetical sturdy opposition will pave the way for sustainable good governance and will also at the same time help it endure easily through any kind of crisis, with balanced policies as mantra for nation’s development.
(The author is former DG Cyber Crimes, Bhopal)