Leadership 1: Kejriwals Participative Decisions


Kejriwal’s great AAP experiment seems to be losing steam for now. The anti-corruption message does not work as well against Modi as it did against the Congress. And for the most part Modi quite aptly does not respond to AAPs barbs. Where are they going wrong? AAPs fight is at many different levels – they want to shake the current system, and somehow eliminate corruption, and they want to free us from the dalal (politician) who earns a commission in the name of progress. The AAP believes that the former requires it to win elections, and the latter requires it to build institutions that can guard against corrupt activities. Though these assumptions are questionable, I think there is a deeper problem.

AAP loves participative democracy – people sit around and bring out their views and through a back and forth a common decision can be taken. Such decision-making is transparent and not in one or two peoples control, and therefore less susceptible to corruption. And so convinced is AAP of this that they even drafted a bill introducing such an institution in the urban government in Delhi through their Swaraj Bill.

But AAPs problem is actually their great love for participative decision making. Good decision-making does require being aware of wide variety of views and preference. And so AAP decisions such as forming the government, leaving it, standing in national elections, all it is claimed are taken through a participative and consultative process. And so we are more democratic the AAP types claim.

Remember pre-independence Congress? Gandhiji kept certain dictatorial powers with him. Gandhi and his cohort made sure that they spelt out all the key decisions. They heard everyone, spoke across the Congress hierarchy and also outsiders, but they were not doing referendums. The Quit India movement did not either start or stop through a referendum or vote within the party.

Participative decision-making tends to average out views. The more the people involved the more decision-making gets averaged out. Moreover not everyone around the table has the same view on what makes for good governance – some want tight laws, other want liberal ones, some want greater role of the government in society and less so for others. Hence perfectly well-meaning people, when forced to come up with a consensus on any policy, will come out with nothing but the obvious but wrapped in high-sounding words.

Any new idea is accepted in its entirety and there is some chipping at the original thought at it as it goes around a table – a kind of an averaging out occurs. People in a collective instinctively know this and therefore rarely come up with new ideas. Participative decision-making is among the worst ways to decide on most policy matters. Read Mancur Olson’s Logic of Collective Action of when collective action works well and when it does not. Moreover, many times arguments get out of hand, a few more vocal members tend to dominate the discussion, time runs out and either no decision is taken or taken without considering important aspects, etc.

Having said that, the participative approach does sound quite attractive, where many different people are able to voice their thoughts and views and through a process of back and forth and questioning many problems can be deciphered in a transparent and democratic manner. That is in theory.

In reality an external disciplining mechanism is very critical for any participative decision-making to work.  In other words, in this case the people accept that they aren’t as well informed, or do not have as good a capability to understand or decipher a problem, or don’t have the physical strength to oppose, and consequently are willing to defer to someone else’s views. This leader needs to give a sense of direction to his flock, who can then take a decision via a participative process if the leader is democratic, or sign on the dotted line if he is a dictator. But without such direction or discipline, the decision making process would be flawed.

In the case of AAP, it is clear that Kejriwal has a worldview – and he does what he wants as per his internal preferences, and without the need for any consultative process. However in many cases his worldview fails him – it does not tell him what is the best course of action, and he indulges in participative decision-making then. The problem is that the people he asks for are neither as invested in AAP as he is, nor are they as aware of the internal issues, strengths and weaknesses. And so the decision making itself is flawed, not to mention the quality of the decisions in furthering AAPs causes.

The solution for AAP is for Kejriwal is to brush up his economic and social understanding of India, which should then help him take decisions for himself.


5 thoughts on “Leadership 1: Kejriwals Participative Decisions

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe that this amazing site needs
    a lot more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the info!


  2. While in principle I agree with you that collective decision-making averages out opinions and therefore may not produce the “best” policy decisions, I would argue that Kejriwal has always talked about collective decision-making in very limited and restricted contexts. Even with the Swaraj bill, the gram/mohalla sabhas are empowered only to make *choices* over how they want their funds to be allocated. They cannot, for example, decide that to overhaul the local taxation system, but can only decide (and then monitor) which of their streets needs more streetlamps, where, how many, etc.

    I completely agree that those who aren’t well informed about a particular problem shouldn’t be involved in the decision making around its policies/solutions. I would argue that it is precisely in this spirit that decision making in matters that are hyper-local are best left to the locals.

    All this is of course assuming that the gram/mohalla sabhas operate in the right spirit where locals voice their opinions fearlessly and are not intimidated by the local goons, but this process has to evolve and we have to give it a chance.


    • Thanks a lot Kartik.

      I tend to agree with most of your views. Actually collective decisionmaking can work great when all the decision makers can benefit from the results of their decision. And so in the hyperlocal context it could work very well. In the context of AAPs decisions where large public rallies are used to decide, it does not make sense, because those helping AAP take the decision are not necessarily going to benefit from a good decision, or suffer from a bad one. And therefore you cannot rely on participative decision-making in this context. That was the larger point I was making.

      But even in the hyper local context where participative decision-making could yield some great results, you would tend to require a kind of a moderating entity who is well respected by all. Otherwise it could get out of hand.

      Arvind needs to be better informed not because he is not, but because he will eventually need to take decisions himself. That is, he will not be able to rely on the participative process all the time.

      As for your last sentence, absolutely. And there will be many areas where it will not proceed well, and many areas where it will. Also in some areas where it will not, will eventually correct, and in some areas where it will proceed well, will eventually fall. In fact don’t be surprised if it all goes badly first time it is tried, we will need to correct it and improve it as we go along. Only those who are driven by conviction will be able to bring about and stabilize such a change. But even such a leader will need a lot of energy and support of the right kind of people to do this. I don’t think Kejriwal or AAP has thought through it yet. They do need to at some point.


  3. This Swaraj model is bound for failure. AK quotes Townhall meetings in US and Europe, the Demography is totally a contrast as compared to India and these countries. A so called “Mohalla” within a city has slum dwellers, low income, middle income and high income housing societies. I cannot see how they would agree on amenities on a continuous basis. Extroverts will win over Introverts, Rich will suppress poor, goons will control the law abiders etc. etc. Corruption will continue only change hands. Amir Khan who is a closet supporter of AAP, and has strategically targeted his show SJ2 prior to the elections, tries to push AAP agenda in his various episodes. On the Police episode he explained how Mohalla Sabhas would work by giving example of Bhiwandi overcoming communal riots and hindus/muslims living in harmony, yes macro-social issues are easy to agree upon but not micro issues of basic facilities and spending MLA funds. AK is one insane revolutionary who wants to be the ultimate authority over the constitution and Judiciary. Someone wrote very aptly, only when voted in power people will see their failure, but sadly by then many opportunists would have made their stake to political fame.


    • I agree it will be difficult and it may not work. But no change can occur unless you start thinking differently. I do believe that only the truly visionary people are brave enough to try new things.


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