(Negative) Reciprocity in Democratic Politics

According to the American Psychological Association, ‘reciprocity is a process of exchanging things with other people in order to gain a mutual benefit. The norm of reciprocity, sometimes referred to as the rule of reciprocity, is a social norm where if someone does something for you, you then feel obligated to return the favor.’ It is a self‐limiting norm. It balances social relations. It is not an escalating disposition, but an equilibrating one. This two‐sided social norm of fairness is widely recognized as a fundamental norm, “not only for primitive, but for all societies.” It is also largely recognized as a core principle of democracy. ‘Modern democracy is a system of conflict resolution that rests on reciprocal restraints: norm compliance by all actors is mutual and contingent on compliance by others. The animating spirit of democratic norms is neither sacrifice nor exploitation, but reciprocity. Good democrats are neither suckers nor scoundrels, but fair fighters.’
The normative theories of democracy tell that reciprocity is two types- “positive reciprocity” (mutual cooperation) and “negative reciprocity” (mutual retaliation). The cooperative demands of reciprocity are straightforward in ideal situations of universal compliance because it directs all citizens to do their “fair share” and cooperate with everybody else who is doing the same. But in a real sense, democratic norms are problematic. The demand of democratic preservation is always in tension. There is a lack in “democracy-preserving reciprocity”. Democratic reciprocity does not permit the unraveling of democratic cooperation in a vicious circle of mutual punishment. It does not permit symmetrical moves of “tit-for-tat”.
‘The general norm of reciprocity strives to establish basic symmetries of giving and taking in social life: quid pro quo, tit-for-tat. It obliges us to treat well the people who treat us well (“positive reciprocity”) and permits us to mistreat those who are mistreating us (“negative reciprocity”).’ ‘In democratic politics as well as in social life, norms of reciprocity are “equilibrium preserving dispositions.” ‘It preserves social equilibria of productive exchange, democratic equilibria of fair cooperation.’
In a democracy, ‘elected representatives must at least informally agree that those who win greater electoral support or influence over policy will not use their temporary superiority to bar the losers from taking office or exerting influence in the future, and that in exchange for this opportunity to keep competing for power and place, momentary losers will respect the winners’ right to make binding decisions.’ It always ensures “mutual security,” “mutual guarantees,” “mutual respect,” “mutual toleration,” and “elite convergence”.
In Indian democracy, political parties (key actors) go with negative reciprocity. The party in the rule and its opposition are always in conflict, mostly due to political politics. The mutual cooperation and mutual respect are a rare fact, at least in a public platform. This conflict turns into a battle at the time of any election. All parties try to establish rapport with the voters. The leaders of different political parties attack their counterparts with abusive vocabularies. They forget their own position, and they do not bother how it would be taken by people. Recently, West Bengal assembly poll campaign reminds it when the chief of a party (in the rule) attacks her counterpart ( Prime Minister, Home Minister and other) with slang. What would people learn from it?
Whether democracy and the development of people are a matter of self-less competition or there is a hidden self-interest, so that power has to be hold at any cost. This type of poll campaign has a long-term effect that has to be understood by the leaders. People need peace, but no conflict. May all the political parties think about positive reciprocity in politics? It would be a symbol of healthy democracy.

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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