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News Features  


 

Avirodha and Deliberative Democracy
By Kanishka Ratnapriya

The 10th tenet of the Dasa Raja Dharma is ‘Avirodha’. It refers to non opposition and non enmity. A ruler must not oppose the will of the people. And therefore he must cultivate a spirit of amity among the people and rule in harmony with the people. If this wisdom and logic is ignored disharmony will ensue. If we were to take modern local and international examples of this; J. R. Jayawardena’s final abdication of power, Chandrika Bandaranaike’s fall from grace, George W. Bush junior’s ebb, Obama’s rise and Gaddafi’s Final Day’s all come to mind. The formula is simple; rule in harmony with the people by listening and understanding what they have to say, failure to do so will lead to disharmony and your rule will come to an end.

Today, States have evolved governance mechanisms which allow for the people to be consulted at critical junctures of state decision and policy making. The direct vote, the by-election, the referendum and parliamentary committee systems are all acceptable modern state mechanisms and concepts which can be utilised by rulers to consult the people and maintain harmony. Hence, rulers do not have to live by instinct alone because they can use the receptive mechanisms of the State itself to understand and consult people. The key is to have the intellectual and political will to consult people in matters that concern them without taking arbitrary decisions. It is the connection between this political will, ruling in harmony with the people, the state’s receptive mechanisms and implementing the will of the people that keep state’s intact and stable.

State policy affects citizens and hence all State policies should be designed to benefit citizens. Ideally citizen’s perspectives or representations should be included within the principles of a particular policy. Hence, State policies should be designed by State representatives to ultimately benefit citizens and not themselves. This basic and broad understanding of what policies within a state mechanism should achieve is the ‘norm’ in a relationship between State Policy Design and the political rights of its Citizens. Although this is idealistic and probably not practiced perfectly anywhere in the world, it is something we would like to believe we can achieve in 21st Century political thought.

This link between citizen consultation and state policy design is non-negotiable. When politicians or state officials start to design policies without consulting the people especially on issues concerning voting rights, economic rights, education or political representation it becomes a betrayal of the franchise. However, someone could argue that once you have voted in a particular government, whatever policies they determine during their term is validated through the mandate they have already received. If you disagree with them you could just vote them out in the next election. But what if they design a political system through state policy in which they cannot be voted out or the state policies they create are so destructive that the country suffers crisis even before the end their term.

It’s important that people have a say in the design of state policy for this reason. It’s not enough for you to just cast your vote and let your leaders design State policy because without the ‘peoples watchful gaze’ rulers may design policies to suit themselves. Hence, you or at least concerned groups of people should be consulted when politicians or state officials design policy. This is the basic idea that binds the classical concept of Avirodha with the 21st century political concept of Deliberative Democracy.

Deliberative Democracy is a public political procedure in which a discussion process involving society creates legislation under which society is governed fairly. The perspectives, needs and interests of different socio economic or political groups are identified and measured against each other in a procedural ‘space’. Based on this measurement; the principles of a particular policy is decided upon. Within this Deliberative process state policies become legitimised through a variety of institutionalized processes allowing for inclusive consultation in a systematic and political manner within a State. Hence, the popular will of the people become enshrined within institutional and procedural aspects of the State.

But how can we take this conceptual idea and implement it in a practical manner? The answer lies in our Parliamentary Committee system. Implemented in a transparent and open manner a committee system would allow citizens to assess what the Executive arm of government is doing in their name. A Parliamentary Committee would examine a particular policy in a deeper and more comprehensive manner thus being more constitutive of democratic subjectivity and will. Hence, parliamentary committees are central to the deliberative dimension of democracy. However, it must be said here that they must conform to the principles of deliberation in their own practice.

Parliamentary Committees would be a good system of public consultation in relation to amending bills. However, other than promoting a Deliberative Democratic Process there are many advantages of utilising the committee system for parliamentary work. A Committee is smaller and therefore easier to administer. Committees can meet on any day at the convenience of its members and they are not required to follow the hours mentioned in the Standing Orders thus giving Committees a degree of ‘qualitative flexibility’.
Committees also leave room for MP’s to function in their personal capacities thus reducing the chances of towing a party line and increasing the possibilities of working on consensus. A Committee can summon experts and other relevant witnesses to aid a more qualitative policy amendment process. Many different committees could function at once while discussing different issues at the same time and not be limited to one matter as practiced in the general assembly.

Furthermore, the Sri Lankan Parliament also contains a Consultative Committee System in which there are committees for each separate Ministry of the Cabinet of Ministers in order to keep each ministry under review. The nature of the Consultative Committee is such that they become a convenient forum for MP’s to probe the working and functioning of Government Departments by questioning officials. This allows efficiency and focus for peoples representatives to question the functioning of a particular institution of the State.
The Consultative Committee System would be the most effective method by which Parliament could scrutinise the activities of the Executive branch of the State. In a way it is an evolutionary step for Deliberative Democracy in Sri Lanka which takes peoples’ participation in policy design to a level in which the representatives of the people can keep a check on how State Services and Policy are implemented at the institutional level.

In all the complexities of these details one thing is clear in relation to the concepts of Avirodha, Deliberative Democracy and the Sri Lankan Committee System. There must be a political will to consult a wider range of opinion in the policy design, amendment and implementation process in Sri Lanka. The political attitude of the day is to rush through legislation and get things done quicker and faster. This will only be successful if a Government and State have vast resources and advanced technical knowledge on specific policy areas. If this capacity does not exist it is necessary for the government to get the help of independent experts and consult different opinions on a particular issue. What’s important here is ownership and consultation. Following the basic premises of Avirodha and Deliberative Democracy in the design of state policy allows for real consultation and inclusivity thus giving legitimacy to a policy process. In turn, inclusivity and legitimacy will help maintain harmony between the people, the State and the government.