Listening to them—and shaping our future together

For India to progress faster to fulfil the needs of its citizens, Indians must overcome internal differences. They must discover the highest common factors in their multiple perspectives and aspirations; and listen to each other deeply to understand who ‘we’ are, and to shape ‘our’ future together

Arun Maira

[Photograph by Adam Jones under Creative Commons]

When Brexit exploded in June this year I was safely in the Himalayas, where I had retreated from the scorching heat of Delhi. The TV brought to me, from news centers in London, Delhi, and other places, the bewilderment at the self goal the British seemed to have scored. Business analysts were alarmed, and as confused as the downward squiggles of stock market indices on their TV screens in the aftermath of the explosion.

My apartment is in Mashobra, on the side of a mountain on top of which the British had built a summer retreat for their viceroys in India. The President of India uses the retreat now. Below the President’s retreat, a large home is being built for Priyanka Gandhi, whose mother, father, grandmother, and great-grandfather, led the Congress Party for over 65 years after the British rulers left India. The President of India, and Priyanka Gandhi and her mother, Sonia Gandhi, visited Mashobra in June while I was there. I did not meet them. Though I met many aam admi (common folks) and listened to stories of their lives.

One was a cowherd (a woman) whom I encountered, along with her husband, with their cow and a small calf, every morning when I walked along the road through the forest. While the animals grazed, they were gathering leaves and grass in sacks. We greeted each other every day. She said they earned about Rs 10,000 a month selling milk. Not much; but enough and life was not bad, she said.

We needed the services of Mandeep, the young carpenter, to pull down our ceiling and clean out the mess pigeons had made in our rafters. Mandeep had been an assistant to the old village carpenter, and was now trying to establish his own independent carpentry business. With the booming construction of summer homes on the steep Mashobra hillside, a carpenter is in great demand. Mandeep’s cellphone was ringing all the time, with irate customers demanding that he show up immediately. He could not be at so many places at the same time; so he would patiently apologise and promise to come very soon. Mandeep’s aspiration was to go to the USA where, he heard, tradesmen like him were treated with respect and lived in big homes alongside their customers’ homes.

I helped Mandeep’s assistant, an older man, to finish the work in our apartment as quickly as possible. The assistant carried Mandeep’s tools, held the ladder while he worked, and cleaned up after the work was done. The assistant was completely unskilled. He had never used a screw-driver or spanner, and did not know the very basics, that these tools are always turned clock-wise to tighten screws and bolts. Mandeep had put him to work to scrape off traces of varnish on the window glasses with a razor blade. I picked up a blade and began scraping along with him. He paused, and watched me—an old, balding, grey-haired man—handling the blade very well. He said, with admiration, “You must have been very clever when you were young!”

Sitting on my balcony, beneath the retreat of viceroys and presidents, turning away from the breaking news and sound-bites on TV, and looking out over the valley to the ranges of the Himalayas rising higher and higher into the distance, I reflected on the longue durée (long waves) of history. Long waves in India’s political history: its colonial past, its long dominance by Indira Gandhi’s family, and now into another era. Long waves in European history: the Westphalian Peace, the scientific Enlightenment, two horrible world wars, followed by the forming of the European Union, and now Brexit.

Life has been very good to me. I had opportunities to learn, to work, and fulfil my aspirations that my fellow Indians—Mandeep and his assistant, and the cowherd and her husband—never had. My conversations with them, and with many other aam admi I met on the forest paths and in the village of Mashobra made clear to me that though we may be living in the same place, mentally we are living in very different worlds. The actors and the events in the big stories in their heads about their world did not include Donald Trump in the USA, Brexit in Britain, or oscillations of global stock indices, which were the subjects of almost all conversations among the ‘People Like Us’ who had come to Mashobra to escape the summer heat of India.

Different stories; different histories

What is the history of India? What is the history of the world? From whose perspectives should we record history? Theirs or ours? What should history be about? The rise and decline of dynasties, and the lives of important people who occupy high places? Or the changes in the patterns of livelihoods of common people like the cowherd and her husband, and Mandeep and his assistant? The changes in the GDPs of countries and rise of Asian economies? Or histories of the rise and decline of forests, the evidence of which I could see on the mountain ranges before me. And what about histories of the rise and decline of ideas that drive our institutions and our collective actions?

Among the books I had taken to read in Mashobra was Immanuel Wallerstein’s World Systems Analysis. Wallerstein writes:

“It is important to look anew not only at how the world in which we live works but also how we have come to think about this world…The emergence of this mode of analysis is a reflection of, and expression of, the real protest about the deep inequalities of the world-system that are so politically central to our times.”

The core ideas that we, a global elite, have adopted to shape the world seem to be crumbling.

It would disturb People Like Us, who like to think beyond our immediate surroundings and to see farther than the changes of seasons, that the core ideas that we, a global elite, have adopted to shape the world seem to be crumbling. We believed that globalisation and free trade would lift all boats. We believed that technology will make the world better for everyone. Innovation, along with globalisation and technology, became a buzz-word among us, and we limited the concept of innovation to the use of more technology. Thomas Friedman celebrated these trends in his book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, published in 2005. It sold millions of copies. He was a celebrity at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This was shortly before the global financial crisis, when innovations in financial instruments, enabled by technology, shook up the world. The 21st century Friedman predicted turned out to be very brief indeed.

Friedman launched his book in India because it was inspired, he said, by a revelation he had while playing golf in Bangalore with a founder of Infosys, the globally admired Indian IT company. He said he saw hoardings of global brands around Bangalore, such as Sony and Microsoft. And he could call his wife in the USA from Bangalore on his mobile phone. People in Bangalore were connected with people everywhere in the world, he said. Ergo, the world is flat. Except that, as Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was India’s minister of panchayati raj (village self-government), pointed out sarcastically at the launch of Friedman’s book in Delhi, People Like Us in Bangalore knew what was happening in New York, London, and Tokyo, but did not know what was happening in villages just a few kilometres outside our cities.

When the people speak

We have not been listening to the people outside our physically, as well as conceptually gated communities. Yet, they have been speaking to us in many ways. First it was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then came Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, rallying the people against the political and corporate establishment in the USA. Then thousands of people began arriving in boats on the shores of Europe. And in June, a majority in Britain said they wanted to get out of the European Union. A few days later, many thousands of people defied the government and the police in Kashmir to mourn at the funeral of a young militant.

These dissonances are “reflections of, and expression of, the real protest about the deep inequalities of the world-system that are so politically central to our times” (in Wallerstein’s words). They have shocked People Like Us who thought that the history of systems of governance had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of (US dominated) ideas of democracy and free markets.

Along with the globalisation and financialisation of economies, inequality has been increasing in the ‘Flat World’. Combined with inequality is a smouldering sense of unfairness, and an impression that those who have do not even care about those left behind; and that the ‘haves’ even believe they have obtained their wealth and power because they merit it and that those who are left behind are culturally inferior. There seem to be a million mutinies now, with perceptions of deep-rooted unfairness in established economic and political systems fuelling protests in many parts of the world, some peaceful and many violent. 

The people are speaking. Are we listening? It is high time we listen to people not like us

The people are speaking. Are we listening? It is high time we listen to people not like us and examine concepts that have become embedded in our minds about governance of societies and economies. I will mention three.

One is the concept of ‘growth’. Among People Like Us, ‘growth’ has become shorthand for growth of GDP only. Whereas human beings value growth in many other things that matter to them, which the philosopher Michael Sandel explains in his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Such as our dignity, fairness in society, security in our lives, sustainability of environmental resources, and happiness. We want growth of these too. However, these qualities, that we value very much in our lives and in our societies, are not measurable in money terms. Therefore, they are excluded from conventional economic measures of growth. In fact, many activities that contribute to growth of GDP seem to destroy other things that we would like to have more of, such as more sustainability of the environment and more harmony in society.

The second is the concept of global governance. In one view, a complex system, such as the world is, must be controlled centrally or there will be chaos. In this view, everyone must follow the same rules too. The complication is in making these rules. How are they made, and who makes them? Those presently in power will, in their rational self-interest, argue for rules that will protect their sources of power, while others feel their interests are not being considered. This is the fundamental problem in the governance of most global institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations Security Council, and the NSG (nuclear suppliers’ group). This has also been the problem in the European Union that has made many of its members unhappy, and which led to Brixit.

An analysis of these governance issues and suggestions for their resolution are given by Dani Rodrik in The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the Global Economy, and by Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Berlugian, and Craig Calhoun in Does Capitalism have a Future? The analysis suggests that, while we are all part of one world, we must give freedom to countries to design policies that fit their local realities and produce the best outcomes for their citizens.

The third is the concept of good governance of countries. Governance is the process by which a society produces order in its affairs. Broadly, there are three methods to create good order.

The first method is rule by a strong supremo. He (or she) retains powers to himself and operates through a tightly bound coterie. Such regimes can be very effective in getting things done. Indeed, this approach to governance is credited with some of the Asian ‘economic miracles’. However, such regimes tend to be dictatorial; they crush dissent to keep themselves in power. Governance in these regimes, though effective, is neither participative nor transparent.

The second method of governance enables a society to decide who must rule, and who is right, by determining winners and losers in elections and in courts. Elections determine who has the majority. And courts decide who is right and who is wrong in disputes brought before them. Democratic elections and independent courts are two core processes for good governance in democratic countries. India has these. It has universal franchise and runs the largest elections in the world with remarkably few complaints about their fairness. And India’s courts, though over-burdened, are independent. If these two processes were sufficient for good governance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have much more to do to fulfil his promise to provide ‘maximum governance’ in India. 

The problem with majoritarian democracy and adversarial court processes is that they are not designed to find solutions to complex problems with many points of view. A government with a majority, especially a large one, can become as authoritarian as a dictatorial one. It can deny minorities their rights for their views to be considered while framing laws and resolving contentious issues. The people have spoken once; that should be enough. Now, they must leave it to the government in power. It can justify the exclusion of the minority since it was elected by a majority.

However, by excluding the views of the many who did not vote for it—and quite often these may even be the majority in first-past-the-post elections—a government reduces its own effectiveness. Those dissatisfied with the government’s decisions go to courts wherever courts are independent. However, courts are not set up to find policy solutions to complex problems and must interpret the laws as written. Ministers of the Indian government have begun to complain that India’s courts are venturing into matters of governance that they should not. This is a sign that the government has much more to do to improve governance in India.

When problems are complex, with many inter-acting forces and several contending stakeholders, good governance requires effective methods for people’s participation. Referendums of the entire electorate give an illusion of good democracy. Because the opinions of masses of people must be swayed, leaders on both sides run populist campaigns appealing to the basest of instincts. Whereas, when the issue is complex, voters should be educated about what they are voting for. And then when a small majority determines how all must go (52% versus 48% for Brexit), referendums become yet another example of the problem with majoritarian democracy rather than a good solution.

James Fishkin describes the ‘trilemma of democratic reform’, in his book When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Three core principles of good democratic governance (different to autocratic forms of governance) are: political equality, deliberation, and mass participation.

Most democratic countries have universal franchise and therefore ensure political equality—at least in the process of electing governments. An argument against universal franchise is that all voters are not well educated: many may even be illiterate. Therefore, they cannot be expected to know what is best for them. However, as James Madison, who helped to build the foundations of democracy in the USA, wrote, in the Federalist Paper No.55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob”. The dilemma is between deliberation and mass participation in creating public policy.

Merely inviting many people to participate in a discussion will not lead to a good deliberation. The manner in which the deliberation is conducted is crucial, as viewers of so-called debates and discussions on TV channels will attest to. As Fishkin says, “There is special value in safe public spaces where people can listen to each other without expecting an exchange of expletives.” Social media cannot provide these safe public spaces. In fact, expletives (and even threats to lives) fly around even more in social media than on TV.

Governing our lives

Both the European Union and India are ideas of diverse people coming closer to shape better futures together. The European Union began as an economic union that has struggled with issues of political union. India was formed as a political union with its independence from Britain, and is now struggling to form its states into one common market with a uniform national tax on movement of goods and services throughout the union. Both, Europe and India, are trying to deepen their internal unions of nations and states. They have to strengthen systems for creating common rules; in the process, the parts must give up some of their independence to determine their own rules. Processes of centralization and homogenization, to create one from many, alienate people from their distant rulers who write the rules that the people must live with. They also fear loss of their particular identities in a wider identity.

Processes of combining, and centralizing, for obtaining larger economic benefits run counter to the demands for self-determination and democracy, which are a rising longue durée in human history that is showing no sign of ebbing. People in India would say Dilli dur ast (Delhi is far away) when the Mughals ruled. “Our rulers do not know us; we do not know them. They are far away.” When Mahatma Gandhi demanded Indians’ rights to self-determination, Winston Churchill said that India, without (supposedly) good governance from London, would become a mess. Gandhi’s retort was, “At least it will be our own mess.” Brussels is not as far from Britain as London is from India. Nevertheless, a majority of British citizens want freedom from their European rulers to make their own rules and to recover their own British identity. Strains to unravel unions, from people who want their right to self-determination, are going deeper within countries too. Within Britain, the Scots are straining at the bit. In India, Kashmiris continue their struggle.

Brexit revealed the disaffection of British citizens for the policies of their own government which was following the fashions of globalisation, free trade, corporate capitalism, and financialisation of economies that have been sweeping the world. Those policies have increased inequalities within societies. They have increased unemployment of young people and squeezed the middle class. The surprising popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the USA has revealed the disaffection of both Republican and Democratic party supporters for the ruling establishment of political and corporate leaders. Hillary Clinton has been painted by Trump (and Sanders too) as a representative of that Establishment. When she won her party’s nomination and the support of Sanders, she felt compelled to indicate her opposition to ideologies of free trade, corporate capitalism, and globalisation. 

Who we are and what we want

Citizens in electoral democracies are given the right to vote and to choose their governments. Not enough, they are saying now. They say they are being shut out of the processes by which big decisions are being taken that govern their lives. They have governments ‘of the people’. They want government ‘by the people’ too.

They have governments ‘of the people’. They want government ‘by the people’ too

The Constitution of India, promulgated after India’s independence from British rule 69 years ago, granted universal franchise to all citizens, men and women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. India’s founding fathers believed that, regardless of their circumstances, all human beings have equal rights to determine how they shall be governed. In the Indian Constitution, the cowherd and her husband, Mandeep and his assistant, I, and other People Like Us who travel the world and summer in Mashobra, are equal.

The Davos version of corporate capitalism chafed at the boundaries created by nations. It railed against the rules created by national governments to protect the interests of their citizens. Economists calculated the costs to GDP growth created by these rules. Some, taking a long view of history, declared that the idea of countries with sovereign governments had become an anachronism. The drive for GDP growth and advances of communication technologies would break down national barriers, they hoped.

However, other longue durée forces of history are creating the need for stronger and better national governments. One is, accountable governments, as mentioned before. People want to choose their own government and make it accountable to them. Therefore, there is a trend towards more localisation of governments—from Europe to countries in Europe (as in Brexit), and within European countries also (Scotland?). In India too, the trend is towards empowering governments in the states and in the cities.

The second trend is an increasing consciousness of ‘identities’ and national histories. In a rootless world of global economics, people seek psychological stability and continuity of their history. They reach out for tribal camaraderie within their own people. Thus the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up into countries that formed around earlier histories. When people feel the established system is unfair to them, they will unite with others like them to fight for their rights, as the blacks seem to be yet again in the USA, and Kashmiris in India.

The third trend is the use of violence by disaffected people to terrorise the system. Modern technologies can enable “anyone, from anywhere, to strike anywhere”, as Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, said after 9/11. Citizens have become fearful and are demanding that their governments provide them security against such random violence. Therefore, governments are strengthening their systems of surveillance, and use the same technologies that empower citizens to snoop on them. Though people complain that their government is becoming like Big Brother, invading citizens’ privacies, they also want a stronger and better government of their country for their own security.

When the Berlin Wall was pulled down three decades ago, some believed the history of ideological conflicts had ended. That illusion continued very briefly until the end of the millennium. Then history returned with a vengeance. The economics of globalisation had failed to flatten the primal forces of tribalism, nativism, and cultural identities. Civilizations clashed. A war was declared against terrorism. Geopolitics has returned with the resurgence of Russian nationalism and the rise of China. 

National boundaries, and national governments may be a problem for smooth global economics. But the people need national governments to meet their other fundamental needs of self-determination and security. 

The idea of India

The French Revolution of 1789 propagated the revolutionary idea, in Wallerstein’s words (ibid), “that ‘sovereignty’—the right of the state to make autonomous decisions within its realm—did not reside in (belong to) either a monarch or a legislature but in the ‘people’ who, alone, could legitimate a regime”. This new way of thinking about processes of political and social change leads to questions about who are ‘we the people’ who are the agents of change, and how we the people form our shared identity.

People can be rallied together by invoking pride in their collective identity. One morning, on the forest path in Mashobra, I met two local men. I asked them how life was for them. They seemed happy. The Indian media was filled those days with evaluations of the Narendra Modi-led government which had completed two years in office. I asked the two what they thought of the government’s performance so far. Both replied that, while their families had been staunch Congress supporters for generations, and they had voted for the Congress in the last national election, they felt proud of themselves as Indians whenever they heard that peripatetic Prime Minister Modi was making a good impression on people in other countries.

India is often described as an ‘incredible’ country on account of its diversity—of religions, races, languages, and geographies within it; as well as the many histories that have coursed through it, and inter-mingled in it, over thousands of years. This incredible complexity would make it difficult for anyone to define a singular idea of India. Incredible in its diversity, India has huge challenges before it, of creating good livelihoods and jobs for millions of people, improving their health and education, and lifting them sustainably out of poverty. Systems function well when their components are aligned. They become dysfunctional when coordination among the components breaks down. For India to progress faster to fulfil the needs of its citizens, Indians must overcome many internal differences. They must collaborate to shape their collective future.

India’s energetic democracy is often blamed for the Indian State’s inability to get things done faster. Some even say that India would have grown much faster if dictatorship had preceded democracy. Though dictatorships have not always produced well run States. Whereas efficient institutions of the State are functioning in many Western democracies. The insight of political scientists, such as Francis Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay) and Daron Acemoglu (Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty), is that, whether produced by democracy or dictatorship, strong State institutions are necessary for sustainable growth.

Political scientists, including Fukuyama and James Cook (Ancient Religions, Modern Politics), point out that the formation of strong States has often been enabled by the forging of a strong national identity, which has frequently been based on ethnicity or religion. Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, France after the Revolution, and even Israel, are some examples. Therefore, it is tempting to conclude that Indians must be rallied around a shared national identity to enable the building of a strong State that can impose order and get things done. However, a special challenge that India has if it follows this route, as Cook explains, is that there is no ethnicity or religion that can rally all Indians into one nation. 

Aryan culture cannot be India’s identity. Dravidians in the south have made it clear that they were settled on India’s land before the Aryans came, and they are proud of their ancient, well evolved culture and languages. To the east, other ethnic groups resent being treated as second-class Indian citizens. Nor can religion unify all Indians. India proudly has almost all the religions in the world. The religion of the majority, Hinduism, with its caste system, has been unable to contain everyone equally even within itself. Moreover, the beauty of Hinduism is that it accepts that people can have many beliefs and many ways to their Gods. The imposition of any singular version of Hinduism may even divide Hindus rather than unite the whole country.

Outside my Mashobra apartment, a new neighbour introduced himself to me one evening. He had also come to the hills to escape the summer heat in Delhi. He had recently retired as a director of a large company. He seemed ‘People Like Us’. I asked him what he intended to do now. He said he planned to write a book on ‘what is wrong with Muslims’. The shock in my eyes, which I could not hide, prompted him to explain that his parents had been refugees from Pakistan. As if that was enough to make him an authority on Muslims. My parents had been refugees from Pakistan too. But I have other views. 

India’s history is a composition of many histories. Any attempt to impose a single vision of history is a fool’s game

India’s history is a composition of many histories. Any attempt to impose a single vision of India’s history is a fool’s game. It will create divisions within people, which recent efforts to re-write Indian history are creating. A shared, aspirational vision of what India must become is necessary to align the energies of all Indians in shaping their future. A foundational element of this vision of India has to be, because it is a fact, that India is a conglomeration of many diverse people with different histories. They must respect other Indians as being as Indian as themselves. Ultimately, the idea of India must be what a billion Indians think it is. All of them will not see India in the same way. Their lenses are shaped by their personal histories.

A strong Indian state must be formed around a vision of the future, as the USA was, and not around a religion and a selective history of the past. India’s Prime Minister says that the Constitution is his God. For all Indians too, their Constitution must be the guide to the conduct of the State, as it is for citizens of the USA, and not their version of India’s history.

While all Indians cannot have the same lenses, they must acknowledge that other Indians also have a right to their perspectives of India. Even though citizens of India have different lenses, there must be something common in their views of India, for it to become their collective vision of ‘Our’ India. Indians must discover the highest common factors in their multiple perspectives and aspirations. Therefore, whatever be India’s past, those within India’s present borders must listen to each other deeply to understand who ‘we’ are, and to shape ‘our’ future together.


The central question of our times is, “How on Earth can we live together?” How can we Indians live harmoniously together, and with our mother earth? How can the people of all countries live harmoniously together, and with their one shared earth?

The central question of our times is, “How on Earth can we live together?”

Listening to others is not easy when what they say seems so wrong. It may seem wrong because others see the same reality through different lenses. Like the blind men around the elephant, each of us is convinced that what we see is the truth, which it may be. But it is not the whole truth.

The quality and tone of public discourse in the modern world has become too shallow. TV and social media have become the most ubiquitous means for public discourse. The objective of producers of TV debates is to increase the numbers of viewers so that more advertisements can be sold. Therefore, debates have degenerated into entertainment, with big fights between participants, that provide the public with hardly any education about the issue being debated. A dialogue, in which the participants listen to each other, rather than put each other down, is boring, TV producers say. Viewers will switch off; advertising revenues will be lost.

Mario Popova, the Bulgarian writer, said in her commencement address in 2016 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication:

“As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit—because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for your soul.”

Debates on social media, if they can be called that, have even less listening and understanding of other points of view than debates on TV. The winners of debates on social media are those who win more ‘likes’ during the few hours during which the subject is ‘trending’ before it is replaced by another. So protagonists strive to be noticed amid the noise, by continuously tweeting and speaking in short bursts, so that they can win more, touch-of-a-key ‘likes’ from people with very short attention spans.

The ubiquity of information, which could be a public good, is perversely aggravating divisions in society

A problem with the ubiquity of information, and with the huge numbers of channels and sites in the electronic and social media, is that people cannot watch and hear everything. So they must make choices of what they will pay attention to, and who they will ‘follow’. They choose those they like, and ignore those who have views they do not like. Thus, the ubiquity of information, which could be a public good, is perversely aggravating divisions in society. People are getting locked into their ideologically and conceptually gated communities in which they only hear people who think like they do. They are not listening to others outside.

Social media seemed to have given people the power to topple oppressive governments in the Arab Spring. But social media could not produce good governments. Chaos followed and oppressive governments returned. In fact, while citizens used social media to inform each other, governments learned how to use internet technologies to snoop on citizens. 

Technology is not a panacea. Good democratic governance requires that good processes must be designed and managed for good democratic deliberations. Technologies of the internet and social media can then be applied in these processes to enable systematic citizens’ participation.

Good democratic deliberations must meet five conditions according to Fishkin (ibid).

  1. The participants must be provided adequate information about the issue they are invited to deliberate upon. (This was not the case, evidently, in the Brexit vote. Nor is this the case in almost all discussions on social media where anyone can give a view even if they have no knowledge of the subject.)
  2. There must be substantive balance in the arguments. The conduct of the deliberations must ensure that both sides of the issues (or even many sides if there are) are heard.
  3. To enable substantive balance, there must be diversity of the participants
  4. The participants in the deliberations must be conscientious about the purpose of the deliberation. Democratic deliberations are not debates to be won. They are dialogues (or multi-logues) in which participants sincerely listen to each other, to broaden and deepen their understanding of multi-faceted issues, and enable the emergence of a solution that none of them may have had when they entered into the deliberation.
  5. There must be equal consideration of the arguments offered by all participants on the merits of the arguments regardless of which participants offered them.  

We must listen to people who are not like us, and whom we may not even like

Equal consideration demands that we must listen to people who are not like us, and whom we may not even like. We must understand each other, and we must build bridges amongst communities with differences. Sadly, with the barrage of bits of information from our always on smartphones, we are losing the art of listening when we must learn to listen to each other more deeply.

The first level of listening is to pay attention to ‘what’ the other person is saying, even if one does not agree. The instinct of a debater is to get ready with a riposte to prove the other wrong. Therefore, a debater stops listening even while the other is speaking.

Unlike a good debater, a good listener listens well to what the other is saying and also ‘listens’ to her own mind’s reactions to it. She notices her disagreement, and her desire to counter the other. But she stops herself, and goes into a second and deeper level of listening. At this level, she wonders ‘why’ the other thinks the way he does. And, rather than debate the other, she asks the other, with genuine interest, ‘why do you believe what you do?’ Thus she begins to inquire into another’s way of thinking. And begins to see the ‘lens’ through which the other sees the world.

From this second level, deep listeners come to a third, even deeper level of listening. At this level, the listener begins to notice the difference between her own way of seeing the world and the other’s. Thus she may begin to see her own lens. Our lenses are our ways of seeing and thinking. They are buried within the backs of our heads. We cannot see them with our own eyes. However, we may see them reflected in the eyes of another. Deep listening makes one aware of ‘who’ another is. Deep listening also brings self-awareness, of who I am.

The question, ‘What sort of world are we leaving for our grandchildren?’ has become a cliché. We cannot continue to live as we are, and leave it to our children to produce a more inclusive, more just, more harmonious, and more sustainable world for our grandchildren.

We must change, and we must collaborate with others to shape our collective future. Let us listen to our own aspirations. We must listen also to the aspirations of people not like us for the better world they want to leave for their grandchildren. 

Was this article useful? Sign up for our daily newsletter below


Login to comment

Rajendra Mehta on Aug 05, 2016 6:30 p.m. said

We should not compare India wuth USA as basic upbringing of children is totally different. In US child moves out of home too early and gets independent quickly as against in India children stay with their parenta untill few years after marriage. Asian society is habituated with one leader be it at home (father or most elderly person) or spiritual guru. As such, to some extent we r disciplined only in presence of one such authoritative leader. Most parties have successfully rules India till they had an strong leader. Democracy in political parties have failed precisely for the same reason except if u call BJP is a democratic party. With courts at d mercy of govt r no longer independent, it is best to go for dectatorship then to live in fools paradise of democracy. As rightly mentioned, democracy is about choosing a dectotor every five year !

Chandrashekar Rao Kuthyar on Jul 31, 2016 11:12 p.m. said

<CS> Very thought-provoking article. Hats off to the author for the deep analysis. Listening - to people who may not be like you. Listening - to people whom you may not like. These are prophetic words applicable in Business and in Public life. Thank you Sir. </CS>

Neeraj Sahgal on Jul 31, 2016 9:45 p.m. said

Dear Arun,

I have read this article to the end, well done.

I think that Mr. Modi understands the need for a shared common identity, like national pride, social justice, and so he has been trying to rally Indians around drives like SB.

And yes, financial inclusion is a must.

But, can you imagine the acceleration we could see if we had more Modis at various levels in local government?

Does the district child welfare board not wilfully ignore the poor children who at a tender age are left begging at traffic signals, wiping windscreens and selling toys, to make a living?
Is this indifference not a crime in itself, on the part of those officers, and towards those children (who are citizens of India)?
Is it not the state's responsibility if those children do not have responsible legal guardians, or any legal guardians?
Won't the state levy the Education Cess on the same kids when they save enough money to buy a Sandwhich at a fast food outlet, if they ever do?

We need many more Modis at district level, really.

And yes, i most intensely agree with your observations about debates and discussions on TV, that seems to occur less for informative or progressive purposes, and more for Ratings amd Revenue. The content has come down to such low levels that i am forced to wonder if nobody ever wants to have or hear a discussion that exchanges original views, without name calling, and ending in as much consensus as possible, with all participants reigning in their urge to counter the other and rather trying to understand the view point of the other.
Mr Arnab Goswami, i feel, is the most over-rated tv news anchor, perhaps the most so in his own dizzy views about his own self.
Mrs. Tamanna Imamdar Dutta, who hosts a hindi discussion, is i think one of the better ones, in that she keeps it objective, respectful, balanced, more participative than most other anchors.
Mr. Sanjay Pugulia, who hosts a hindi discussion, is in my view very close to the kind of journalist, presenter, anchor, moderator, that our news channels desperately need to remain credible.

By the way sir, i always wanted to spend my retired life in a cottage in the hills, with local folk, a few close friends, a lot of books and a couple dogs.
Now, i will look at Mashobra too, even though i am more than a decade away from retiring.


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, the future of India, and indeed the world, 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 civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. 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, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF 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.

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 (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), 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. 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 most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

Also by me

You might also like