Like many others, I was captivated by the no-confidence motion and the fate of the government. The twists and turns in this escapade make it seem like a detective novel rather than the fate of a nation. Then again, the media coverage of the no-confidence motion resembles a sports event more than anything else. Whatever the outcome, the reputation of the political class has nose-dived from an already low perch. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to take stock of what democracy means to us. In particular, I want to ask whether 'democracy as media spectacle' can produce enough knowledge to be a true 'battleground of ideas'.
One of the claims about democracy is that vigorous public debates help us forge a collective vision of our future. The last few days have seen their share of argumentation, but they have not brought out a single good idea, let alone a vision of India's future. The no-confidence motion was about political expediency, with substantive issues falling by the wayside.
Every day we heard new gossip about the number of MPs in the governments stable, but we do not grasp what it means for the PMO to mediate a family dispute between two fabulously rich brothers. We hear about the Left's opposition to the nuclear deal, but we do not understand what foreign policy will follow from the deal. Even when we discuss the pros and cons of nuclear energy, we do not have a sense for why India is throwing in its lot with the Americans. I am not talking about the facts debated in high-level policy circles or among the great leaders of our political parties. Perhaps they are privy to information we do not know, though that itself is troubling. I am talking about the lack of debate among educated laypeople.
Despite so much hot air about nuclear energy released in the last few weeks, we do not have a vision for India's energy consumption in the future. Can we sustain our growing energy demands? More importantly, given the unsustainable nature of the energy model that drives our current demand for energy, should we be continuing along the lines dictated by the current model of growth? Both the backers and the opponents of this deal agree on a model of development that will visit environmental ruin on us. Why are there no debates on the appropriate model of development?
A knowledge deficit
Politicking aside, the fundamental reason for the lack of a substantive debate is that we, the public as well as the representatives, simply do now know what the real issues are. Behind the hoopla about bank notes paraded in the well of the house (which is admittedly a serious problem) is an even more serious problem: the knowledge deficit among citizens in our democracy.
The knowledge deficit in our representative democracy takes two forms: first, since MPs are not primary producers of knowledge, parliament debates are based on second hand information. If the information is false, no amount of debate can produce the right results. Second, the producers and channels of information are themselves not democratic. No one is asking for public consensus, but expertise is not an excuse for secrecy. In technical matters like the nuclear deal, informed decision making needs precise analysis that can only come from years of study. But experts are as human as anyone else; they have their own agenda. Besides, what is to prevent lobbyists posing as experts from supplying misinformation?
In theory, electoral democracy should address this deficit, and produce both local and global knowledge. Ideally, bottom-up knowledge on local issues should come to our elected representatives from their direct experience of their constituents' needs. On the other hand, top-down knowledge about larger issues should come to MLAs and MPs from the free exchange of ideas with their peers. But that's all theory. In the real world, our elections do not throw up candidates with the ability to gather either top-down or bottom-up knowledge. Instead, the elections are about dividing the spoils of victory - power and patronage - and only mildly useful to throw egregious offenders out.
Without appropriate local and global knowledge, the politico-administrative institutions are either inefficient or downright harmful. How can we fix this?
The knowledge commons
The lack of knowledge in our political system can be corrected by creating a league of experts for every problem. This is the American model; think tanks like the Rand Corporation have been influential in American policy making. No doubt, India's size and problems need expert inputs to decision making. Arguably, the nuclear deal was one of those cases, but there wasn't any enlightening discussion of the deal in parliament, let alone in the larger public. Experts are important functionaries in a professionalised economy which can address the basic needs of most of its people. In such a society, experts perform a useful role, for they have access to knowledge beyond the reach of the educated layperson.
But many of India's failures are basic problems of governance, not expertise. Anyway, even where technical knowledge is required, one should take expert opinion with a pinch of salt. Consider the Iraq war, the greatest American misadventure of recent times. The decision to invade Iraq was justified based on that country's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Looking back now, we know the expert advice was either flawed, or what is more likely, fabricated.
The problem is not expertise, but the secrecy in which expertise cloaks itself. Technical interventions having a significant impact on civil society should be available to the educated layperson in understandable language, and socially relevant decisions should be based on knowledge available to the public. Expertise has to be subjected to the democratic process. Only then can we create a moral commons, a space in which all Indians come together and enjoy equal rights. Like air or water, the knowledge that underpins important political decisions, should be accessible to all as a fundamental right.
A knowledge commons needs a decentralised approach to knowledge acquisition. Knowledge production should be spatially and institutionally spread out across the country. If secretive expertise is a problem, so is an untrained mind. We need to have a cadre of knowledge producers occupying a happy medium between an untrained person and a technical expert.
One good model for such a knowledge commons is medicine, as opposed to a nuclear physicist. A doctor may be a specialist, but he also needs to have empathy for his patient. There is no such requirement for the physicist. Besides, like medicine, the problems of public knowledge have to be solved simultaneously in multiple locations. Research in cosmology needs a few people in elite institutions, but medical knowledge, even of medical specialties, is needed all across the country. In decentralised knowledge production, what matters is not originality - in the sense of being the first person to publish an idea - but competence, empathy for people, and the capacity to sift true experiences from false experiences. Knowledge doctors have to be directly accountable to the public.
There are no Indian precedents for public evaluations of professionals. One model comes from local governance in the United States, where many functionaries such as judges, sheriffs, county surgeons are hired or elected by local councils. The American model is problematic for various reasons â it often makes functionaries pander to the lowest common denominator - but we should at least study such models and adopt good features for our purposes.
India needs more knowledge doctors and fewer knowledge experts. People living in a particular location are the best candidates for gaining bottom-up knowledge. When top-down technical interventions are needed, there should be an independent evaluation done in the public domain. Top-down information should also be localised when possible by tying technical information to the sites (if any) of intervention. Decentralisation of knowledge is mostly common sense; our universities should be producing such individuals by the thousands. Unfortunately, our education system is not geared to meet the demands of our country. Still, India's problems are so pervasive that we cannot hand over knowledge acquisition to experts unaccountable to the public. We have to create a knowledge commons.