August 24, 2005Public Policy

On the politics of consensus

Or the art of appearing to move while standing still

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Shabash! Pratap Bhanu Mehta (previously fisked here on The Acorn for his defeatist foreign policy prescriptions) comes out strongly against the politics of consensus that has put India in a bind.

But this consensus should worry us. There is half a truth to the maxim that when a position reflects consensus, it is probably a good reason to oppose it. But, more seriously, the kind of consensus we have suggests that the political space, for all the noise it generates, is relatively closed, ideologically. We often worry about various groups, defined by some criteria of ethnicity, being under-represented in Parliament: minorities, women and so forth. But we should worry more about lack of ideological variation in Parliament. It is amazing that a liberal democracy, with a liberalising economy, has no parliamentarians with a genuine liberal sensibility: a healthy scepticism about the scope of state activity, a reluctance to reproduce invidious group distinctions, a presumption in favour of the people against the paternalism of the state, and a genuine regard for individuality, speaking the truth as one sees it.

A consensus politics is a politics of coming up with policies that no one can object to. But policies that no one can object to are often also policies that no one can quite believe in. Hence the paradox that the areas we have most consensus on are the areas where we achieve the least…Hiding behind a consensus also heightens the gap between what politicians believe and what they profess. It gives some credence to Plato’s old charge against democracy, that while democracy has a lot of free speech, it has very few frank speakers.[IE]Mehta writes this in the context of the rural employment guarantee act, reservation of seats in private colleges and parliamentary seats for women.

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