Ajit Doval’s plain speak

Ajit doval

Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Czar is unafraid of plain speak. But he may have overstated his case by opining yesterday that a uniform pan-India governance architecture would be best for the nation.

Diversity drives political contestation and change

This is not quite the way the Constitution envisages India being governed. India is undoubtedly a Union of states with strong centrist tendencies. But history shows that the centrist instruments have been better known to retard rather than enhance democracy. These early experiences of the Raj mentality continuing to prevail have stymied easy acceptance for sublimating differences of context and development – though the GST is an honourable exception. Integration could be one way forward if we were Singapore. But we are 200 times bigger.

Integration would almost certainly happen if we become a single party democracy like China. But the Constitution is clear that we are a multiparty democracy. Alignment across parties and state governments can be achieved where network effects as in telecom or electricity transmission or the advantages of production at scale as in space or petroleum exploration, dictate uniformity.

states

But the essence of our Constitution is diversity in policy making and hands on management of our states. A stress on stable and strong governance is to be expected coming from a political appointee of the ruling Union government. But conflating medium term national interest with the political interests of a single party is a one way street to either fascism or Chinese communism with capitalist characteristics.

India’s imperfect democracy and “weak” government

Neither option appeals to citizens born and bred in the idyllic winds of an unjust but free polity like India. Josy Joseph – the journalist – is right when he opines that well-off Indian urban and rural elites are the ones who have benefited the most since independence. But as the recent cross country analysis on inequality shows lop sided benefits from growth are not peculiar to India alone.

Is India willing to trade off enhanced growth against depleted state and citizen rights? The jury is out on that one. Also consider that growth is not just a function of a strong government. The Russian government is very “strong” and stable but growth and productivity is spectacularly low. If Russia was sans natural resources, like India and less splendidly isolated, one wonders how far it could have got.

Strong governments do not strong societies or economies make

Growth is about equitable and effective taxation; sound capital allocation; efficient project management; effective social protection and human capital development. In a country as heterogeneous as India, where government exists at three vertical levels and multiple horizontal spaces, political contestation and electoral choice are the only true guarantors of national interest. Indeed these principles recognise explicitly that it is all too easy to fall into the trap of equating national interest with self-preservation.

Just like the Indian Rupee, the definition of “strong” or “weak” is contextual. A weak (coalition) Union government combined with strong (single party), stable state governments can work just as well as a strong, stable Union government counterbalancing weak state governments.

Nimble institutions, like Japanese Pagodas, can survive earthquakes

What remains vital, in all situations, is to have institutions which are nimble enough to respond to the political architecture which changes with every government. Flexible institutions are not the same as failed institutions.

Pagodas

Consider, for instance, the recent widespread dismay amongst security cognoscenti at the restructuring of the national security architecture to create a single choke point on national security – the National Security Advisor – between the Prime Minister/Cabinet and the myriad security agencies. Earlier governments have preferred multiple “filters” – as balancers -between the Prime Minister and the collective civil and defence bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Modi prefers to minimise the “filters”, possibly because he has implicit trust and faith in a few aides (like NSA Doval).  Another PM who might not have such trusted people about her might opt for multiple filters for news and views to reach her. The point is that the institutional architecture should facilitate, not hider Prime Ministers from creating a support system which suits them. After all it is the PM who is responsible to the Parliament and to the Judiciary.

Bureaucrats and business both like flexible rules but dislike flexible institutionalised arrangements. The latter threaten carefully curated careers and long nurtured relationships, respectively, by changing the rules of the “influencing” game. But if governments are to become more responsive and responsible there is little choice.

For the public at large it matters little who is “influencing” the PM and how. For them the real choice is to vote for either the MP or MLA who has a proven record of service in their area or if none such exists, to vote for the party they perceive will benefit them the most. The aggregate benefit of all citizens is as close as we can get to a proxy for national interest, at least in the short term. Here Doval is right to say voters should look for those who are capable of forming stable governments.

Strong states and local bodies can support effective governance

Consider if state governments had competent investigation agencies, the CBI would not be that irreplaceable. Ditto for the Intelligence Bureau or the Central Reserve Police Force. There is too much duplication and functional overlap between the Union and state governments. Significantly downsizing the Union government’s range of intervention would save money and improve implementation.

The Indian Right is paradoxically fascinated by China’s strong state. They should look closely at how strong provincial governments are in China; how significant their role is in local governance and development and how locally recruited officials serve their villages, towns and cities for long periods with 90 per cent of them never getting a promotion or being transferred.

For Sardar Patel strength without faith meant little

Sardar-Patel

Ajit Doval is right that governments should be strong. But so should the other vehicles of democracy – Parliament, multiple political parties and most importantly the ordinary citizen. Focusing on government alone, courts the risk of making government strong but leaving citizens behind. Sardar Patel would have probably agreed that a strong government, by itself, is of no consequence if unsupported by the faith of the people.

Also available at TOI blogs October 26, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/ajit-dovals-plain-speak/

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