You have mail, Mr S A Aiyar. Subject: Brexit

Back in 2003, during my first full year as a manager, I was given the unpleasant task of getting rid of an employee who had been with my firm much longer than I had been. My boss told me it would be difficult for him to take that call, since the employee and my boss had a very close relationship; hence, I was to play the bad cop. While thinking about the best way to do this task, I wondered if giving him a bad appraisal would send out the message without me explicitly having to fire him. When I ran this idea by one of my bosses from an organization I had worked for before he told me it was a bad idea. He said (to paraphrase) “Employees view bosses as people with power, and they do not take it kindly when those in power rig the system so that the employee does not get a chance to respond. You think he is not suited to the job or that he is not performing well, then tell him directly.” I followed his advice and told the employee things were not working out, and to my relief he agreed. Over the years, while not fast friends, he and I have remained in touch.

While   reading S. A. Aiyar’s op-ed in The Times of India  I reflected how the writer would have survived  with a mentor like my boss from the anecdote above.  The entire op-ed is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty by a man, while intelligent, does not mind rigging the system to ensure the desired outcome.

Disclaimer: Like in my earlier piece in OpIndia.com I do not intend to discuss if the voters in the UK chose wisely or indeed if the idea of referendum was the correct one in the context of the enormity of the decision to be taken. Once again, I am choosing to only discuss the hypocrisy behind the effort to delegitimize the vote away after the results are out.

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The gist of Mr. Aiyar’s writing is this:  Brexit is a disastrous outcome that would not have happened if the stupid voters had not been given the power to choose. If at all this had to be put to a referendum then a simple majority was too low a benchmark to ask for and the Government should have insisted on a 2/3rd or 3/5th majority opinion as  a benchmark for the referendum.

My objection to this piece is two-fold. First, Mr. Aiyar is complaining about the system after the game is over and the results are in. If he or his kind (we are drowning in op-eds about what a disaster Brexit is going to be) thought putting such an important decision to vote was foolhardy, then they should have done all within their power to dissuade people from participating in the process in first place. If one side had completely boycotted the voting, the legitimacy of the vote could have indeed been questioned. Right now, what Mr. Aiyar and his kind are indulging in is a bit of devious goalpost shifting.

Keeping this basic objection aside, there are flaws in the suggestions given in the op-ed about how such changes should be brought about. Mr. Aiyar mentions the multiple checks and balances in various democratic systems including in India before a major change in the Constitution can be brought about. We need to consider two interesting points here.

One, in today’s fractured polity, there is no doubt that sometimes representative democracy may end up giving voice only to a smaller portion of popular opinion than a referendum. In our own Lok Sabha, the NDA with about 31% votes garnered in the 2014 general elections control close to 61% of the seats in the lower house. If members in the Lok Sabha were to cast their vote on an important issue today, it can be argued (as indeed a lot of my friends from the left are fond of arguing) that it represents the opinion of only about a third of the country’s population.

Interestingly, Mr. Aiyar argues that “Representative democracy is a more indirect form of democracy than the holding of referendums, but despite many flaws is better overall. It is more resistant to ugly populism and false propaganda. A referendum to make India a Hindu state or impose Hindi everywhere may well pass, but should be resisted”. What he conveniently leaves out is because the representatives in the Indian parliament do not have to always do what their voters wish for, it allows minor communities with concentrated voting power to bully those representatives to serve their interests –the Uniform Civil Code discussion being an interesting case in the point. The only thing worse than ugly populism is the even uglier tyranny of minority opinion/votes.

More importantly, there are flip-sides to the very fact of having multiple checks and balances in themselves. In Steven Spielberg’s excellent biopic “Lincoln” , we saw how President Lincoln actually did not allow the American Civil War to end till the time he had the required votes to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and involuntary servitude. Imagine this — a good man had to have the weight of needless deaths on his conscience because  the elaborate system of checks and balances did not allow him to move fast enough on an important issue.

The other alternative suggested by Mr. Aiyar is to have a referendum but to set the bar higher, preferably at 2/3rd majority for a change that is, in his words, “irreversible, or very difficult to reverse”.

We have all heard of the two travellers in an African jungle. When they were told a tiger is coming in their direction, one of them sat down and started wearing his running shoes. The other traveller, incredulous, asked his mate “you don’t expect to outrun a tiger now, do you?” to which the second traveller calmly replied, “I don’t have to outrun the tiger, I have to only outrun you.”

This is bit of a sleight-of- hand, a trick if you will. In any referendum where the status quo is one of the two alternatives, anything other than a simple majority is basically rigging the system in favour of the status quo. It is very easy to see how in a referendum requiring 2/3rd majority the two sides would need different percentage of votes to gain the desired outcome. For the “Leave” campaign, it would be at 65% whereas for the “Remain” campaign it would be just 35.1 %. They have to only outrun their mate and not the tiger.

Towards the end, Mr. Aiyar comes up with the usual intellectual argument against Brexit asserting that “Many issues are so complex that the common man cannot be expected to come up with a considered view”. Again, he conveniently leaves out that it would be naiveté in the extreme to assume that those who can be expected to come up with a considered view will not support a side that serves their interests. There was a lot of chatter on social media about how people disregarded expert opinion in favour of emotions in the Brexit vote. What nobody is willing to own is the fact that it is the expert’s integrity and not their domain knowledge that the common man does not trust anymore.

It is a result of many years of disappointment with the experts and their opinions. Calling those who disregard their opinion “bigots” or “stupid” will hardly solve the problem.

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