Conversations in a noisy place

Public discourse has descended into the shallows. Where is the space left for citizens to engage in deeper deliberations about their future?

Arun Maira

[Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay]

Dear friend,

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg challenged world leaders at the United Nations: “People are suffering, people are dying, entire ecosystems are collapsing….and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” She challenged the dominant paradigm of economic growth driving policies everywhere, including in India. A more humane and ecologically sensitive paradigm is required. “How dare you turn to us (the children) for hope,” she said. You, the emperors, must change your clothes—the ideas with which you strut around—she implied.

“Are Western democracies becoming ungovernable?” asks The Economist. Elected governments are in office, but not in power, it says. Many countries in Europe cannot form stable governments because the largest party does not command a majority. Coalitions are unstable. Parliaments are unable to pass laws. “The home of failure to pass meaningful laws is the United States,” it says. Systems of electoral democracy have been exported by the West to the rest of the world, even by force—like in Iraq. Now the system is failing even in the West. People are becoming fed-up with politicians, who only want to be elected. Politicians in office don’t much care about finding solutions for long-term issues such as those that Thunberg highlighted. They are concerned about winning their next election.

Elected governments do not have incentives to think long, and to invest in policies whose outcomes will not come about during their period in office to boost their next election campaign. Media used to keep the public attention on citizens’ long-term concerns through short election cycles. Electronic media is now scrambling to hold viewers’ interests in very short news cycles to improve TRPs to sell more advertising. And social media, which has become ubiquitous, has reduced attention spans even further. Public discourse has descended into the shallows. Where is the space left for citizens to engage in deeper deliberations about their future?

An inspiring example of concerned citizens taking charge of the discourse is the Think Long Committee for California. It was formed by a non-partisan group of persons—labor leaders, community advocates, entrepreneurs, economists, and former government officials—none of whom were in an official position, but all were concerned about the future. Following a systematic plan for their year-long deliberations, they found an institutional solution for California’s governance which is now being adopted by the government.

India’s elected politicians, like their counterparts everywhere, are caught in their short-term interests. India’s media—print, electronic, and social—has become very shallow too. Who will step up to convene democratic, non-partisan deliberations amongst Indian citizens? How can technology be used to facilitate them and increase citizens’ participation without losing the richness of face-to-face dialogues?

I am grateful to Founding Fuel for curating a conversation about how we will deliberate thoughtfully about shaping our collective future.  

Personally, I find that there is nothing like a good book to make me think deeply. Books demand sustained and deep attention, much more than videos do, and much more than the tweets of presidents and celebrities of course! Technology is helping my reading. Kindle enables me to carry many books around with me, to read in the spaces in my time that I make for them.   

Happy reading.

Arun Maira

With Team Founding Fuel

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Renovating Democracies (Great Transformations), by Nathan Gardels and Nicholas Berggruen

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India & Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy and the future of India is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how the two can work together to foster growth for India. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India. In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Another decade later, Arun was back in India, this time as the Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, a position he held for eight years till 2008. The other leadership positions he has held include being the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was also board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission, which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation, and drove the formulation of policies and programmes in these areas. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His recent books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning; Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (published in May 2014); Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for Everyone; and Shaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond.

His book, An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (Rupa), was published in August 2016. The theme of the book is: the progress of nations and organizations has to be a cooperative endeavour. A good society is one that enables each individual to realize his or her aspirations. Everyone must cooperate to create such a society. The book should be of great interest to leaders in government, in the private sector, and in civil society organizations also. For they must all create better cooperation systems within their enterprises and with each other too.

Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us, was published in 2017. The book is an incisive analysis of the causes for the increasing divisiveness in societies, aggravated by the shallowness of public discourse, and the break-down of communications between people with different beliefs and histories. He suggests ways to reverse these dangerous tendencies and make the world better for everyone.

His latest book is titled Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit. In the book, he says, while economies have been growing, systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. This realisation led to the Sustainable Development Goals, which all countries signed up to achieve. A new toolkit is required to attain these goals that go beyond the precepts of good business management and prevalent best practices in government as well as civil society organisations. This toolkit has to be founded on disciplines of systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening.

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