Consolation of Democracy

Senior political journalist M.R. Venkatesh, who has joined The Hindu Centre as Chief Political Coordinator, casts a fresh eye on the inherent possibilities in the Centre’s efforts to re-energise the political discourse. Borrowing from ancient philosophers he muses on some underpinnings of human nature that throw light on the structural barriers that prevent meaningful and fulfilling participation of citizens in parliamentary democracy.

First, why these reflections. Triggering these thoughts was a strange alchemy that I discerned between the first objective laid down in the Mission Statement of The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, and the thought-provoking ruminations of the Roman Philosopher Boethius’ (C. Ad 480-524) masterpiece ‘The Consolation of Philosophy,’ on a wide range of issues that affect the quality of our daily lives.

“The Centre through its various explorations will seek to establish stronger and credible roots for parliamentary democracy, pluralism and economic betterment,’’ is how the statement of intent begins, which in itself is a huge springboard to turn the searchlight within. How Boethius’ work instantly arched over this enterprise will unfold as we go on.

Voter turnouts in recent elections in India, whether it be to the Lok Sabha or to the State Legislative Assemblies, have been astonishingly very high, which itself is a flattering piece of news from the ground. Yet, as the ‘wheel of fortune’ turns every five years, or in some instances slightly less, what raises concern to the student of politics is why the common man, our own Kuppan and Suppan, is getting increasingly alienated from the democratic process as a whole. It is a paradox worth unravelling.

Is it that societal tradeoffs are getting more distorted though political parties win working majorities or are able to cobble up coalitions? Starting from here, the obstacles to a more meaningful and fulfilling participation in Parliamentary democracy by the people are many and multi-layered.

Examples are the flexing of muscle and money power, caste and other vested-interested groups as a tilting factor in voting, structural weaknesses in the system as exemplified in slogans such as “the cake is not getting bigger as it should”. There is also the problem of woefully low representation of women in legislatures - which political scientist Zoya Hasan observes, has impeded the process of pushing “gender-just policies and laws” .

Notwithstanding these embedded structural issues, the effort here is to simultaneously flag what may be called ‘philosophical underpinnings of human nature’ that could help to throw more light on the former set of issues. The ‘Owl of Minerva’ is compelled to take wings, as Hegel might say, whatever may the flavour of human discourse be at any point of time in history.

This is not a foray into ideologies, rather a phenomenological mapping of sorts. Hopefully, it may trigger a spark in the minds of people at large on the virtues of democracy, as one faces the dilemma of the ordinary voter, who despite the enormous potential of the ballot box for change, is clearly disenchanted.

As deliverables by any elected government shrink qualitatively over time even as quantitative outlays are on the increase, the voter qua angry citizen is what evokes the image of Boethius as appropriate to our context. Even when the Neo-Platonist thinker was an ‘ailing prisoner’ facing death row, not all was lost for he was consoled by his ‘Nurse’ called ‘Philosophy’.

The metaphor symbolising Boethius’ predicament stands out more starkly vis-à-vis the aam aadmi, when the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports become the sole arbiter in judging performance of elected governments, indicating erosion in the prestige of the party system and their leadership.

The heady days of applying ‘Game Theory’ to political strategies may be over in the second decade of the new millennium. However, the insights gleaned from economist Kenneth J. Arrow’s path-breaking “Impossibility Theorem”, is still so relevant, as described by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, when discussing Arrow’s work and its implications for social choice theory.

As a theorem, its complex mathematical formulation is beyond the reach of most people. But very crudely put, if “individual preferences over a set of alternative social states”, could be harmoniously merged into a singular social preference, then, it logically assumes a ‘dictatorship’ in that society. And that, as Amartya Sen put it, “is antithetical to the democratic commitment”.

Even as some of these great insights – Sen carried forward Arrow’s amazing breakthrough in mathematical economics to greater heights in welfare economics and social choice theory – might have to be re-visited by us in the context of the re-emergence of Naxal and Maoists violence in the country, it is clear that the “democratic commitment” needs a cultural base of openness and freedom.

When one poured over the dialogue between Boethius’ and his ‘Nurse’, one realised that the articulation of that reassurance could not have come more poignantly than from these lines in his celebrated book: “And If the Muse of Plato speaks the Truth, Man But recalls what once he knew and lost.” The allusion by Boethius is to Plato’s (still debated) view that all knowledge “is recollection”- like the Slave-boy in one of his Dialogues, “helped to solve geometrical problems by himself without being instructed.”

All that is required in the learning process is that someone ignites that spark, for the “reawakening of memory” in an inter-subjectively shared life-world. If that be the case in the realm of learning, then in the realm of practice ‘democracy’ ought to be its institutional counterpart as the “reawakening of freedom”. Thus Boethius has a key to restore Man’s faith in Democracy too.


1) Amartya Sen’s presented paper, “Arrow and the Impossibility Theorem”.

2) Anicius Boethius, ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’, Translated with an Introduction by Victor Watts, Revised Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1999.

3) Zoya Hasan, “Women in Politics: Towards a Gender-Just Society”, in the ‘Arena’, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, April 2013.

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