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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Gandhism – ethics? or just good politics.

Gandhi South Africa

Over 125 years ago, in May 1893, a diminutive, young lawyer boarded a first-class train compartment at Durban on his way to his new workplace in Pretoria, South Africa. At Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in the middle of the chilly night, over 500 km short of his destination, he was evicted. He had a valid ticket. But he was an Indian and brown as a berry. He was ejected when an on-boarding white passenger complained about sharing the compartment with a coloured person.

An Indian out of sorts with apartheid

Oddly, he took this incident badly. Being an Indian – he was then just over 23 — he should have been accustomed to the pervasive, invisible barriers of caste, race and class back home, which dictated what you ate, with whom and even how you behaved, or the clothes you wore.

Perhaps young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had wrongly assumed the extent of egalitarian “protection” that was afforded by a British passport. Perhaps he, like the rest of his colonised brethren, also suffered from the Stockholm syndrome — where your tormentor seems like your benefactor. Perhaps it was the shock of his fall from grace. In India, Gandhi was an upper caste, educated bania, from a family of well-off court officials in Gujarat. In South Africa, he was just another coloured man in a suit. That must have hurt.

Non-violent resistance to institutionalised injustice and inequality

He took the incident personally and resolved to fight injustice, racism and inequality. Using the law to fight repression and inequity proved tortuous and time-consuming. Incremental change was not his style. On his return home in 1915, now suitably attired in turban and dhoti, he launched the largest public contact programme ever, and incubated his workbook of ethical, non-violent disobedience to fight unjust laws. So how enduring is his legacy?

Gandhi - India

Gandhism – out of sync with the 21st century

Gandhian values sound decidedly quirky as personal and institutional traits in the modern world. Austerity, simplicity, non-violence, autonomous, self-sufficient village republics all appear like “loser” values and institutions — the default options available to the weak and the poor, not the preferred options of winners.

Globalisation is all about integration and economies of scale, not self-sufficiency. The technological frontier is leading us towards unprecedented levels of centralisation of information and economic power. Trust as a value, in a globalised world, becomes peripheral to agreements and contracts which are justiciable. We are tweaking nature for enhancing well-being, reversing ageing, preventing disease and death and increasing productivity. Cities are increasingly bigger, higher and more densely populated — the engines of change providing the needed scale and network effects.

Violence is a collateral consequence of rapid change, fragile social contracts and the anonymity of ordinary lives. Between nations and civilisations, peace is defined as the absence of war — tenuously kept at bay by carefully balanced armies or nuclear deterrents assuring mutual annihilation.

Politics and ethics have never mixed well. Often high morality and religion are the cause, not the salve for war and violence. Nathuram Godse was no ordinary assassin. To this misguided man, the physical annihilation of the Mahatma was akin to preserving the future of India, which had already suffered the body-blow of Partition in 1947. Maoist, restive tribal communities and Kashmiri militants are all merely the latest in a long line of communities who similarly respond violently to a perceived violation by the State of their core beliefs or autonomy.

Gandhism – tools for resisting State repression

What place could there be in this organised mayhem of modern existence for the simplistic beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi? Could a “Gandhi” be born today? Would he/she resonate with an India which is no longer fragmented, famine-ridden or colonised?

Gandhi inspired Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. But both were leaders of marginalised communities, fighting repression at the national level. In India, the popular revulsion against grand corruption, waste and indecisiveness, under the second United Progressive Alliance government of 2009-2014, resulted in the birth of a fledgling party – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by Arvind Kejriwal. It pledged to restore probity in public affairs, committed to living close to the people they served and to remain accountable via decentralised, participative  decision-making mechanisms. Its leaders shunned the trademark cotton khadi vestments of the independence movement — the hallmark of Indian politicians posturing to be one with the people.

Anna hazare

Mr Kejriwal, on becoming chief minister of Delhi courtesy a landslide victory in 2015, attended the President’s formal “At Home” reception on Republic Day in rubber sandals, a pullover and his trade-mark muffler. They outdid the Communists (remember rumpled trade unionist George Fernandes?) at their own game. The AAP even found a mascot — a Gandhi clone in Anna Hazare — a provincial, social activist, prone to using the Gandhian tactic of “fast-unto-death” to persuade governments into ethical action — in this case to constitute an ombudsman. Seven years later, India still doesn’t have an ombudsman. The AAP and Anna Hazare have since fallen out because of asymmetric political objectives, and political Gandhism lies in tatters.

Quintessential Gandhi – the poverty filter

Gandhi poverty

The Gandhian principle most successfully used in India requires that no State decision is taken that does not benefit the poorest person. Despite rising inequality, especially since 1992, high growth rates have diluted the extent of poverty. The headcount of those with incomes up to $1.9 per day (in 2011 constant terms) declined from 55 per cent in 1983 to 46 per cent by 1993, and then fell rapidly to 21 per cent by 2011. By 2020, it is expected to decline to nine per cent.

Firing on multiple fronts, the Narendra Modi government is working to rapidly reduce the extent of multi-dimensional poverty with improved public service delivery by 2030. The good news is that these services are increasingly universally available to all communities, based on economic criteria.

Paternalistic democracy – India’s democratic choice

Bapu would have liked that. He liked diverse but harmonious, well-knit, disciplined communities, quite similar to China’s model of “people’s democracy”. Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were paternalistic democrats, as is Prime Minister Modi. This leadership style will endure. It resonates well with our ethos of “democracy with Indian characteristics”.

Gandhi fast forwarded

Gandhi fast forward

An abiding characteristic of this ethos is that we may be marginally wrong but strive to remain broadly right. Gandhiji was born on October 2, 1869. His 150th birth celebrations should have begun in October 2019 and end by October 2020. Instead, the celebrations begin in October 2018 and carry on till 2020 — marginally incorrect but broadly right.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in the Asian Age, October 2, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/021018/serve-poorest-of-the-poor-be-a-gandhian.html

Babus as default tycoons

IAS 1

Our style of governance remains “provincial”. Of course nothing wrong in that. The French, despite being the last word in art, films, fashion and style – and now fighter planes – exult in the provincial core of their culture.

The dapper President Sarkozy first became a mayor of a charming French commune – through the simple expedient of marring the Mayors niece – before becoming President of France in 2007. No Indian politician worth his salt would spend a decade in district or municipal affairs, in the hope that this would further his political career.

In politics start at the top and stay there 

No sir, we graduate from student politics directly into the Parliament in Delhi, failing which, to the state level legislatures. Consider, that a Rajasthan dynast of the BJP, now says that he never wanted to be an MLA. But daddy – a BJP big shot from the Vajpayee years, couldn’t get him a ticket for the national elections, so he suffered in a job he was never interested in. He is now open to switch to another party, if he is assured a ticket for 2019.

Ditto that for the civil service

Oddly the government – read politicos – do not consider it strange that it forces bright young appointees to Indian Administrative Service to spend one third of their careers, initially, in the minutia of provincial affairs, “fire fighting” on a daily basis, to manage the perverse outcomes poor public policy, poor delegation, systemic failure or worse, outright corruption. Once their curious minds are suitably dulled and they approach an age, when their cohorts are big names already, in academics, management or technology, they are given a chance to come to Delhi to engage in policy formulation or the State capital to try their hand at program implementation.

It does not help that the existing system for recruitment allows candidates who are approaching middle age to join as a “young” recruit to the IAS. Worse, rather than spending the first decade of their service becoming specialists in their field of choice, these unfortunates become little more than the entitled flotsam of civil administration. They arrive half-baked “by administrative design” to head departments over the heads of existing personnel, who unfortunately were “a few marks short in the UPSC exam”.

Who gains from a plaint civil service?

All this is old hat. The real question is why do such perverse incentives continue to prevail? Who gains from it? Yes, lazy, incompetent IAS officers certainly gain from a system in which having once gamed the UPSC exam, they can sit back, smile at every powerful politician, adopt a tunnel vision on the nature their job, create no ripples and wait for good fortune to promote them faster through more vacancies at the top.

But one doubts that merely making life easy for IAS officers is the real incentive. After all, this elite tribe of around 6000 officers represents just 0.1 per cent (one tenth of one per cent) of the 6 million civilian public servants in administration. The real intent seems to be to keep them captive by never encouraging them to develop marketable talents.

A bureaucrat with “connections” is better than one with options

Professionals with international demand are a dodgy bunch. Remember Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramanian or even the Columbia professor, distinctly uncomfortable with real life public policy management – Arvind Panagriya. They found the marginal utility of hanging on, progressively reducing, so they left. A small number of babus also leave to go on to become successful entrepreneurs or professionals abroad or in India.

A bureaucrat with options is the last thing our politicians want. They like the humid stickiness of “relationships” developed over a life time. Such people are dependable. And politicians like bringing their sticky babu relationships along with them, as they grow in importance.

A glimmer of lateral competition at the very end of this government’s tenure

To its credit, the Modi government has, at the end of its five year term, initiated what will eventually become a scaled up lateral infusion of talent. Exposing bureaucrats to competition is the right way to go. But there is also a possibility that this mechanism may remain a subtle threat to ensure slavish, bureaucratic compliance, as is widely prevalent amongst the state level cadres of administrators.

Is it fair to crush bright young minds by stuffing their mouths with faux power

It is unfair that the potential of over 100 young IAS appointees, culled from the 500,000 who take the UPSC exam every year, is systematically degraded. Of course no one forces them to join. But where else can the child of ordinary parents get the chance to become an honoured part of the empowered Indian “elite”?  It is wrong to mould those who join for a three decade long career to become feared, often despised but always subservient members of one political dispensation or the other.

IAS 2

Early specialisation within narrow work verticals can enhance professional pride

Change the system. Cadres should be recruited on a narrow basis of skills and then trained for the public workplace. District administration, for example, is not just an incubation period. It should be a life time occupation. An IAS officer interested in district management should join as a Tahsildar and aim to retire as Chairman of the State Revenue Board. Others, who prefer secretarial services, must have the requisite sector skills (secretariat administration, public finance, industrial and commercial policy, agriculture etc.) join as a Section Officer and hope to retire as Secretary. Cross fertilization between the Union and state government secretariats could work. Most likely, those good at field jobs will be useless in the Secretariat and vice versa. In the modern world “general management” is what a spouse does at home every day. You don’t need to specialise as a generalist from day one.

Stop the contagion spreading through “caretaker” top appointments in private banks

Perhaps the most egregious cases of “provincial” type appointments are visible today in the financial sector. IDBI Bank earlier, Yes Bank and the venerable ICICI Bank are now headed by babus as Chair or Vice Chair. The storied ILFS (Infrastrucure Leasing & Financial Services) – a Non Banking Finance Company, which is, could, if it is not quickly sold to Orix, Japan (an existing minority shareholder with deep pockets), also soon be in “safe” babu hands – possibly one of the many IAS officers who have passed through its hallowed portals on deputation and contributed to its debt overhang.

Babus make excellent choices as a reliable pair of hands. The problem is they also make their organisation “safe” from all risk by bringing to the desk obsessive micro management. It is fine if such “senior age” management is inflicted on publicly owned entities. But why destroy the few private sector entities we have? They are in trouble because of indulgent “independent” directors, including pliant PSU nominee directors, who represented political not public interest and an RBI which failed, till recently, to proactively regulate errant management in privately owned, listed financial companies.

Private tycoons can be regulated, “babu” tycoons capture the regulator

James Crabtree in his breezily readable book – “The Raj Billionaires”, typifies top Indian business heads as “tycoons”- with the freedom to dream big on the back of implicit “relationship” based political support with nary a thought spared for minority shareholders. Simply, replacing a corporate tycoon with a babu hoping that things will become better is like mistakenly opening a fizzy wine and them trying to cap it for a rainy day – it goes flat. There are better ways of regulatory risk management than putting your “own man” in charge – that is an undesirable and inefficient “provincial” option, out of step with good governance practices.

Also available at TOI blogs September 25, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/babus-as-default-tycoons/

The Saffron brotherhood in 2024

Vajpayee funeral

No one knows why Prime Minister Modi chose to walk behind Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji’s funeral cortege till “Smriti Sthal” (the place of remembrances), where India’s top politicians – are usually cremated. Was it to bridge the gap between his actions and the principle of Raj Dharma (ethical rule) enunciated by Atalji in 2002? Was he pre-empting possible attempts by the Congress or the Janata Dal, to appropriate for themselves, the legislative and executive legacy of Atalji – the gentle giant? Or was it merely to hog free public facetime on national TV?

Mind over matter

RSS 2

Truth be told, it matters little. What does matter is the impact the extended visual had, of senior BJP leaders trudging on doggedly, through the muggy heat, for 5 long kilometres and seeming none the worse at the end – including the mildly podgy BJP President, Amit Shah. There could be no better illustration of the core RSS ideology of “character building” – training the body through renunciation to execute plans thought up by a selfless mind.

Walter Anderson & Shridhar Damle, the authors of “The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism”, 1987 did a comprehensive review and ideology of the RSS at a time when the Sangh dominated the BJP.

The BJP demerged from the Janata Party in 1980. It won its first state level general election with a clear majority, only a decade later, in 1990 in Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, quickly followed by Uttar Pradesh in 1991 and Rajasthan in 1993. At the national level its seats in the Lok Sabha increased from just 2 in 1987 to 120 in 1991 – far from a majority but it was the second largest party behind the Congress.

RSS/BJP rapid growth and Muslim appeasement

Its spectacular success was partly sparked by a tactical error by Rajiv Gandhi, as Prime Minister, in stoking a Hindu backlash by intervening legislatively in 1986, to reverse the progressive judgement of the Supreme Court in 1985 under Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, which had upheld the High Court ruling, allowing maintenance to Shahbano – a divorced, Muslim woman, under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, even though her suit was not maintainable under Muslim Personal Law.

To assuage the consequential Hindu backlash against, what was perceived as “appeasement” of Muslim sentiment, the Rajiv Gandhi government opened the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to allow access to the Hindu idols inside.   L.K. Advani launched his Rath Yatra for completing what Rajiv Gandhi had begun – building a Ram Temple, which led to the 1992 illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fundamentalists, even as the Government of Uttar Pradesh – then under the BJP and the Union government, under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, turned a Nelsons eye to the proceedings.

Babri

More importantly it legitimated, in Hindu minds, the fundamental RSS opinion that unless Hindus presented a united front, democratic processes would result in a dilution of the Hindu voice in governance of the nation.

Anderson and Damle have now updated their 1987 work and covered the developments within the RSS and its affiliates in a new book –“RSS- A View to the Inside”. It is a great place to start understanding the relationship between the RSS and the BJP.

 Post 2012 shift in power balance from RSS to the BJP

The balance of power between the BJP and the RSS has turned since 1987. Of the over 100 affiliates (36 are listed in the book), BJP is the most significant. With a majority in the Lok Sabha and in state governments covering two thirds of India’s population, the BJP is a dominant national player and a significant voice within the Parivar (family) presided over by the RSS.

The RSS has also grown, particularly post 1990.  Nearly 2 million people are said to participate in more than 60,000 Shakhas (primary groups) which meet daily, weekly or monthly. The elite cadre of the RSS consists of 6000 Pracharaks (communicators). These can be functionally likened to the Weberian “steel frame” of the Union government. Unlike them, Pracharaks are unpaid full-time workers, whose meagre, monkish, needs are reimbursed. One half of them are on deputation to affiliates including the BJP – many of whose top leaders (like L.K. Advani and Narendra Modi) were Pracharaks. Significantly, Shah is not one of them, though he is a dedicated swayamsevak (selfless-worker).

Can the RSS be insulated from the compulsions of democratic success

If the BJP is re-elected to power in 2019 for the first time there would have been a decade of BJP political rule. Will this create tensions within the RSS, which remains resolute to its core ideology of nationalism, “character building”, evangelical (as in non-threatening) Hindutva and a belief in its higher moral purpose above mere politics? But this is not a red line. Its cadres actively pushed the BJP to power in the 2014 general elections. A similar strategy seems likely in 2019.

A clash of titans by 2024?

Titans

The more the RSS grapples directly with the politics of evangelical Hindutva the less would be its traction with its affiliates, like the Hindu Vishwa Parishad, which practise a fundamentalist form of Hindutva. The enormous addition in the resources available, which comes with political power in India, will enable the BJP to exercise overwhelming financial dominance over the other affiliates. Would the RSS, till now an umbrella organisation, the centrepiece of the “Parivar” retain its pre-eminence? Could it assimilate a “rainbow” of castes, regions and cultures – all of them products of modern India – into its spiritual view of Hindu culture?

Is there a possibility that a decade of BJP rule till 2024 could refocus the polarity around the BJP rather than the RSS, with the umbrella organisation become the cultural affiliate of the BJP?

This is undoubtedly an extreme scenario. First, the RSS is slow to change and prefers wide consensus to top-down decision making. The BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is the opposite. It moves rapidly and is completely centralised in its decision making. A war of attrition would probably favour the BJP.

Narendra Modi as Sarsangchalak in 2024

Modi RSS

This writer asked Walter Anderson, at his book discussion in the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi yesterday, if he thought that by 2024 Narendra Modi, would recuse himself from active politics and become the Sarsangchalak – the supreme guide and advisor of the RSS – the position held, since 2009, by Mr Mohan Bhagwat and in doing so, merge the two organisations.

Mr. Anderson’s firm response was “No, a Sarsangchalak is always promoted from within the RSS and they despise politics. Mr. Modi would not want it any other way.” So, there you have it from the expert. Best to take his word for it.

Also available at TOI Blogs August 24, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/the-saffron-brotherhood-by-2024/ 

Grow up well India

statistic_id254469_median-age-of-the-population-in-india-2015

So, what are we trying to say when we repeatedly stress that 65 per cent of our population is below 35 years of age? It is not as if we are growing any younger. In fact we are ageing. And that is a good thing because it is an outcome of development. India became younger between 1951 and 1970 when the median age (the point at which one half of the population fall below and above) decreased from 21.3 to 19.4 years due to improved healthcare and rising incomes.

Demographic googlies

Since 1970, the median age has increased steadily as people live longer, fewer babies die and fewer babies are born. By 2040, the proportion of the population below 34.5 years will fall to 50 per cent from 65 per cent today. Will that be terrible? Consider that by 2040 we will be in the same demographic boat that Singapore is in today. Age merely indicates we can become like Singapore in two decades if we do the right things.

The point here is that the advantages of a youthful population are exaggerated. There are 84 countries with a more youthful population than us today. None of them is competitive with India. The virtues of youth are likely to fade over time. Advances in artificial intelligence and healthcare will reduce the demand for manual work — which is best done by the young — whilst also prolonging productive life. This means that the definition of the workforce will change to include older folk — possibly up to 75 years — who will continue to earn, pay tax and pay-in rather than draw out from health insurance. Tata Sons and the BJP have already used the magic number of 75 years as a marker for obsolescence.

We are working towards an ageless society. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan being launched on September 25 will provide in-hospital medical insurance to 107 million families (45 per cent of the total number of families) at the bottom of the income and caste pyramid. Public health centres in 150,000 locations are to be upgraded to provide pre-hospitalisation diagnostics and preventive care. State governments have also taken the lead in launching similar schemes for health security. Robotisation is widespread already in our automobile sector. Machines will progressively replace workers in construction, agriculture and sanitation.

Wear those wrinkles with pride – they signal the long road we have travelled

wrinkles

The bottomline is that we should not emulate the paranoia of filmstars about ageing. Our collective shelf life is far longer than the first flush of youth or middle age. We should also not be nudged into having more babies to keep the median age low. China, with a median age of 37.4 years, is reversing its family size restrictions and doing just that. But their demographic transition, like their economic transformation, has been jagged and artificially staged via the heavy hand of State control. Ours has been a natural demographic transition driven by personal choice, higher incomes and better old age and health insurance.

Hone kids to be productive future citizens

What we do need to fear is that we may continue our business-as-usual approach which prioritises near term results over sustainable growth. If India is to grow up with dignity we need to transform our educational system to produce multilingual, multi-skilled and multicultural professionals, as capable of cooking up a meal, singing a song or cleaning their toilets as of designing a complex space mission.

Hai! the plunging Rupee

There is another number which is being bandied about with alarm — the exchange rate of the Indian rupee versus the American dollar breached the 70-rupee mark last week. Our currency has been overvalued since 2013 because of a complex belief in a “strong” currency being a proxy for a “strong” nation.

False pride

strength

This belief is wrong on two counts. First, if our exports are not competitive because our currency is overvalued, relative to our peer exporters, then a strong rupee is merely false pride, not strength. Second, if strength is gauged from the ability of domestic producers to beat back the competition from imports and retain domestic market share, then a strong rupee works at cross purposes to this objective. It subsidises imports at the expense of domestic production. It taxes our exports and benefits our competitors like China.

The only thing a strong (overvalued) rupee achieves is to artificially reduce the landed cost of imported coal, petroleum products and military hardware. It also signals to foreign investors that exchange rate depreciation risks are minimal, thereby reducing the risk premiums they add to the hurdle rate of expected return from their investments. To this extent it reduces the stress on our fiscal position, improves the external balance and also impedes inflation.

However, these advantages of a strong rupee must be evaluated against the numerous downsides. Reduced employment and the loss of revenue from GST for those state governments, where producers have shut shop because of cheap imports. Consider also that a strong rupee actually encourages Indians to go on holidays and shop abroad rather than at home. This impacts retail trade directly. It simultaneously makes India an expensive tourism destination, versus options in East Asia.

Look to the RBI to set a predictable “real” exchange rate for the Rupee

A belief in a “strong” INR is as shallow as male machismo. Neither is a “weak” Rupee the answer. Setting the right “real” level for the rupee (accounting for domestic inflation), to optimise the complex trade-off, is best left to the Reserve Bank of India, which has the expertise and the information to strike this delicate balance. The rest of us must desist from creating false shibboleths of national strength. Our strength is best demonstrated by balancing our trade account without imposing prohibitive import or export tariffs; making our budget revenue surplus so that borrowings only finance investments and by following a need-based strategy for allocating resources for human capital development and social protection. None of these three milestones have been achieved yet.

collaboration

Grow up well India, collaboration is better than conflict; maximalist negotiating positions are self-limiting and the high from winning has diminishing utility unless the agenda ahead is compellingly uplifting.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, August 19, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210818/grow-up-india-time-to-set-an-uplifting-agenda.html

Unbundling State effectiveness – current perspectives

dreams

Context is everything. No one model exists of an effective State. Hugely diverse countries like India can benefit from a modular approach enabling sub-national jurisdictions to shape their State architecture taking into account their context, the available resources and their dreams. The last is important. “Dreams” -as opposed to short-term ambition- are a mix of inherited drivers for action. They determine who we want to be- a long term goal. Consider, that in the long term – any period after 20 years – every factor of production that appears fixed today -technology, natural resource use, and human capital- can be changed.

Core sovereign functions

A large part of the modern sovereigns effort relates to overcoming negative “externalities” (war, insecurity, crime, environmental degradation) or enhancing positive “externalities” (sanitation, public health, basic education, transport, energy and communication networks). An externality is a cost which cannot be allocated to any one entity or a benefit which is not enjoyed by just one individual. This results in the need for “collective action” to finance and execute plans to deal with externalities.

Dealing with the problem of “collective action”

Using State executive agencies to deal with externalities was the pervasive form of “collective action” till the 1970s. Experience shows that those State interventions, which work “along the grain” and align with public sentiment are effective. Consider the baffling, continuing insecurity in Kashmir despite a massive deployment of security forces. A wider domestic and diplomatic engagement with the root causes of Kashmiri disaffection could help. Note that in sharp contrast, China deals with Uigur resentment in its Xinjiang province with a heavy, repressive hand. If the Economist is to be believed, it keeps 1 million Uigurs – more than 10 per cent of this Muslim minority group- in detention camps for “re-education”.

Hybrid options for “collective action”

Hybrid options for “collective action” have emerged over the last four decades. These unbundle the core sovereign functions from those which can be undertaken by private entities. Private contractors perform even routine security functions; lease out, maintain and even operate equipment for government agencies. Government can get things done by others rather than do them itself. But using this model extensively requires government agencies to change its skill set from project implementation to project design, contracts, finance and monitoring. There is insufficient evidence that government is making that transition. Public Private Participation (PPP), with the private sector putting in capital and bearing the implementation risk, has died in India.  Government was unable to make the functional transition to design and manage contracts effectively for mutual gains. Private investors used the mechanism as a way of earning riskless returns using bank loans. The term “Public” in PPP gave banks carte blanche to extend loans to “lemons”- projects with dodgy financials.

Bridging information asymmetry

Managing information asymmetry is also a key sovereign function to reduce the transaction costs to efficient levels and allow market to grow. Legislating standards like “weights and measures” makes trade more efficient; making rules for disclosures on operational and financial results by business, makes stock markets more efficient; regulations for public disclosure of product contents, as in medicines and food, protect public health. These are “in situ” measures to bridge the information gap between buyers and sellers within a given market structure.

Making markets competitive

Non -competitive markets induce inefficiency and impede growth. On the supply side, the government’s job is to avoid cartelisation by existing suppliers and regulate the level of market dominance of individual suppliers. The Competition Commission of India, backed by appropriate legislation is the vehicle for doing this.

Aggregating demand is the flip side option to keep markets competitive. User’s cooperatives are one traditional option. Government owned demand aggregators, like the Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) are another option. EESL reduced the retail sale price of energy efficient LED bulbs by 75 per cent over 2012 to 2015 just by buying and distributing at scale. Private demand and supply aggregators like Amazon and Flipkart are newer options which operate like mini-markets reducing transaction costs for both sellers and buyers.

Markets – building blocks of the future

Global ideological polarisation around the usefulness of markets for reducing transaction cost and spurring competition via innovation came when China, under Deng Xiaoping adopted, in 1979, what later came to be known as “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”. Collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, signalled the end of Soviet Union style socialism and the ensuing ideological polarisation around markets.

Bumbling liberal democracy versus totalitarian efficiency

Political Science became simpler post 1990 as nations clustered around two major clusters. The larger chunk consists of nations which align with, or aspire to, the western model of governance – democracy, multi-party elections, citizen rights and public sector governance reform to minimize the direct intervention of the government in the economy. India fits squarely into this set.

A smaller set of nations, with China in the lead, subscribe to the supremacy of the Party as the mediator between the State and the people. State control remains pervasive via public investment and Party cadres in key positions in the private sector. The “national interest” dominates citizen interest. Controls on family size (till recently), continuing controls on domestic migration and a weak judiciary are the downsides.

The “middle kingdom” shines

china shine

The spectacular economic success of China over the last four decades, including in reducing poverty below 3 per cent, provides powerful evidence that the State can function as effectively as the private sector. This model produces results but also future tensions in an artificial short-term, trade-off between citizen rights and economic progress. If development empowers people, how will a system based on the sacrifices of the many for a few, shake-off the bonds of political subservience it engenders?

Listening to discordant voices or ignoring “noise”

China has the managerial freedom to implement decisions without catering to the “noise” from political opponents or muted public opinion. Curiously, this is not too different from what Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla wants. By taking Tesla private he can avoid the relentless scrutiny of shareholders and the discipline of market expectations.  In India the need for consensus is a brake distorting efficient solutions. Consider the case of the Goods and Services Tax.  The GST, an efficient tax reform, languished for over a decade. In 2016 the Union government conceded managerial ground to the GST Council. It agreed to make implementation “revenue neutral” for state governments. A back stop Union government guarantee protects against short fall in tax revenues. The potential risk of “moral hazard” is the risk.  Multiple tax rates, knowingly sacrifice the efficiency gains from a single rate of tax. But the architecture now exists; systems are stabilizing, the rates can be adjusted based on experience. Listening to the people via the state governments has paid off.

Living with the “nuisance” of judicial review

China has no patience with judicial review of its decisions. This makes the government and the Party supreme. India is a liberal democracy, even though we chose to call it “socialist” in 1976 via an amendment to the constitution. The power of “public interest litigation” effectively restricts the ability of the government to undertake significant change, except via constitutionally aligned legislation.

The initiative of the Vajpayee government to privatise State Owned Entities in 2000 quickly ground to a halt. It became impossible to implement the legislative changes required to change the public ownership of state owned enterprises like ONGC, what have statutory status since 1956 or banks, which were nationalised by legislation in 1969 and select private industries nationalised in the 1970s.  “Reform by stealth” – the Indian approach, truly has its limitations.

India, stolidly elephantine moves

Elephant

It is instructive that one and a half decades after electricity reforms were initiated in 2003 there are privatised electricity distribution utilities in the national capital of New Delhi but a State Electricity Board, created under the Electricity Supply Act 1948, continues to function in the state of Kerala – the last bastion of the Left.  India assimilates multiple ideological regimes, per the local context.

Local governments bring innovation and accountability

Successive Finance Commissions have devolved more resources and responsibilities to local bodies. But Panchayati Raj, the third level of government, embedded in the Constitution in 1992, remains sparingly implemented. One third of the annual growth in the pool of Union tax revenue must be incrementally, directly devolved to local government, as shared benefits. This will enhance local ownership of the growth process and facilitate empowered grassroots leaders to grow into future national leaders.

A nation of itinerants

train stations

Decentralisation brings to the fore, multiple potential threats – the problem of equitable allocation of funds; ideological permissiveness and political dismemberment. These are real threats.  But India has stabilizers built into the constitution– free migration and the rule of law. So long as our laws promote non-discrimination and equality, the market for work and liveability will make a person vote for national integration with her feet and move to a place, where she feels secure and productive.

One fourth of Indians do not live in the place where they were born. This is why the Aadhar unique digital identity, with appropriate safeguards for private information, is vital to secure seamless access to public services anywhere in this country of itinerants.

There is a curious dichotomy today. The world looks at India as a major determinant of its future. But we, within India, are still staring at our navel awaiting enlightenment from without. It is time we claim our place in the Sun by making our actions speak for us.

 

From the authors opinion piece at the Law School Policy Review, gust 19, 2018 https://lawschoolpolicyreview.com/2018/08/19/unbundling-state-effectiveness-current-perspectives/

Book Review: For Reasons of State

For reasons of state

India is a young nation. Three fourths of us probably have no recollection of the ravages of the Emergency period from January 1975 to March 1977.

This book was first published in 1977, just after the national elections, called by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – in a bout of self-delusion as a referendum on the Emergency, swept out the Congress – they lost all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi – and brought in the lightly glued together Janata Party.

The authors, both veteran journalists, describe their work as an “investigation into the workings of (the) monstrous administrative machine during the Emergency and the devastation it left behind”.  It is a perfect informational tool – not just a blend of statistics and a chronological listing of events. The authors say they chose “to be accurate rather than sensational”. But the level of granularity they uncover in their investigations and the lively characterisations they add, make people and events come alive, giving the narrative a gut wrenching, virtual face-time feel.

Cashing in on current trends

Why re-publish the book now?  It is the fortieth anniversary of the Emergency. But that seems less than sufficient reason, even though the new version has a foreword by the celebrated “Indian” journalist, Mark Tully. The authors perceive a salience – the potential for constitutional subversion under today’s majority government, just as it happened during the Emergency.

The muscular track record of the Modi government and its commitment to implement deep political change evokes a visceral fear, amongst those, who apprehend that a major constitutional change can negatively impact minorities and the marginalised. The liberal order is being challenged universally, which heightens the fear that India is no exception.

Is India under a virtual emergency today?

Mark Tully points out that drawing a parallel between the Emergency and the situation today is illusionary. This assessment resonates well. Citizens voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2014. But the Congress has also been re-elected with a majority in the past. But each time, events conspired to temper authoritarianism. Today the BJP remains in a minority in the Rajya Sabha.  A vociferous, albeit small, opposition is active in Parliament. Democratic safeguards have actually worked. Consider Uttrakhand, where the judiciary quashed an attempt to impose Presidents rule in 2016. In Bihar 2015 and in Karnataka 2018 non-BJP governments were elected, illustrating that electoral rights remain intact.

Tully also opines that unlike the Emergency, today there is an absence of widespread anger. However, fear of a vigilante backlash or the termination of government largesse via advertisements or project funds, has muted criticism of government by non-government organisations and driven some of the mainstream media to self-censorship.

The authors believe that there are strong personal and institutional characteristics shared by the Indira Gandhi and the Narendra Modi governments. A massive mandate to rule is one such. This inevitably emboldens leaders to take strong, decisive action. There is also a desire to move quickly for results. Shackled by lumbering institutions, charismatic leaders seek to short circuit public processes. In doing so, they bring in trusted advisers, not accountable to the public – Sanjay Gandhi in the case of Indira Gandhi and the RSS in the case of the Modi government. Curiously, however, both these widely disparate centres of extra-constitutional power seem to target Muslims and Dalits.

Wannabe Lutyens denizens, charlatans and craven officials abandoned public interest 

The most interesting aspect of the book is that readers are invited to be flies on the wall, whilst dodgy decisions are taken by the high and mighty of the Emergency days. The authors do not shy away from naming specific politicians, officials and wannabes like “Begum” Ruksana Sultana, who were all actively complicit in subverting the rights of citizen in Delhi.

Ruksana Sultana

Nasbandi (forced sterilisation) and resettlement of slums were the key disrupters of social contracts and civic responsibilities during the Emergency. Slums were levelled overnight. 7 lakh hapless residents were transported to 27 resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Delhi with little more than 25 square yard demarcated plots and patchy one room houses. But under-provisioned sanitation facilities and drinking water, no markets, no access to health care or schools made these peri-urban deserts, seem designed to make the poor disappear and leave Delhi looking green and beautiful. They bred disease, death, and anger. In the 1984 organised hate crimes against Sikhs, it is these resettlement colonies like Trilokpuri and Mangolpuri, where the worst atrocities were committed.

Two perceptive chapters dwell on the travails of the Delhi police and the reasons behind its ready capitulation to manipulation by politicians during the Emergency. Imaginary threats were materialised and minor criminals magnified into severe security threats. Tragically there have been too many “Dacoit” Sunders (a Delhi badmaash who was built up into gun toting dangerous gangster, later captured by the police) who, like “Sant” Bhindranwale, in Punjab, were manipulated into larger than life figures only to meet their untimely end in a burst of righteous police action.

If a grim account of abandoned constitutional responsibilities, grossly violated official procedures and craven official machinations for personal glory can serve to entertain – this is it. Whether it puts readers off voting for the BJP or impels them to do exactly that, remains to be seen.

Adapted from the authors book review in Business Standard, July 31, 2018 https://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/intimations-from-the-emergency-118073100018_1.html

India’s geopolitical choices till 2040

Trump

Every passing day, America plays the truculent, ageing diva on the wane, whilst China exudes a quiet, confident gravitas. Their chosen global roles, however, do not reflect the fundamentals of either country.

America is one of the few developed countries with a robust economy, relative to its overwhelming size. It grew smartly at an average of 2.5 per cent over 1990 to 2016 (versus world growth 2.8 per cent). In Europe and Japan, ageing and poor economic policies are slowing down the revival process, post the 2008 slowdown. But America, thanks to its ‘open-doors’ policy for talent, its zeal for innovation and a super-educational architecture, has rebounded –– even though President Trump continues to play to the injured sentiments of middle America, which sees growth and jobs as a zero sum game.  But psychologically, America is shrinking into a smaller island of prosperity than it needs to be. The mood of the nation is to cut its losses overseas, lock the doors and count its millions. This is akin to voluntary national euthanasia.

China Russia

China, despite much less going for it physically, is psychologically expansive in its ambitions – eager to fill the gaps opened up by a receding America. In 2016, GDP at US$ 9.5 trillion (constant $ 2010) was roughly where America was in 1990. Despite high levels of inequality, which concentrates the incremental growth and wealth at the top, President Xi enjoys enviable domestic support. The average Chinese is gung-ho about occupying centre stage in global affairs.  Strategic allocation of its surplus for investments overseas has created an alternative variety of quasi sovereign international finance which, to put it bluntly, seeks to “immizerise”- to twist Professor Bhagwati’s signature concept-  the beneficiary nations who accept its cheap loans.

China investment

Inability to repay the loans followed by benevolent ever-greening of the loans, will bind the beneficiary nations into a long-term, largely one-sided financial relationship, reducing once independent nations to vassals. The Chinese will try and stretch out this symbiotic arrangement till they either supersede or take control of the United Nations and related institutional arrangements for management of international affairs. China might become the largest economy by 2030, and by 2040 indentured nations will have little choice except to bow to Chinese dominance, much like an addict wanting her next shot at any cost. It is unclear, however, if China will have the staying power to continue to splurge cash on winning friends till then.

Their game plan is not very different from what America itself followed post-1945. Financing the reconstruction of Europe and Japan bound these countries to America, creating a politico-economic group which represented 66 per cent of world GDP in 1960. Back then, America itself accounted for a heady 40 per cent of world GDP.

G7

This set of “friends of America” (FOA) still account for around 58 per cent of world GDP. But America’s share has shrivelled to around 18 per cent of world GDP. This is the core of President Trump’s angst. Whilst the FOA group has grown significantly since 1960, under American protection, they continue to be free riders when it comes to spending big bucks on global security. Indeed, avoiding large outlays on defence expenditure has enabled these economies to divert resources for growth and social welfare.

The truant behaviour by POTUS at the Quebec G7 meet should be viewed in this context. One can even make the argument that the trade wars are not so much directed at China but at America’s own allies – a wakeup call to start paying the bills for global domination. America is set to become an international wallflower after a half century of global domination.

China grew spectacularly at just under 10 per cent per year over 1990-2016. But to achieve somewhere close to the critical mass – 30 per cent of world GDP- needed for global domination, it will need to grow for twenty more years at 4 per cent above the rate of world growth. But unlike America, it does not yet have a set of permanent allies, who could pump up the group share.

SCO

India is a likely candidate for such friendship. Russia and India share traditional bonds which have deepened through the purchase, by India, of defence equipment. A bloc comprising China, India, Russia and Iran (CIRI) can pump up China’s economic heft to around 45 per cent of world GDP by 2040. China and India, respectively, would account for around 30 and 10 per cent of world GDP.

Admittedly, CIRI would be a grouping of convenience. The Friends of America group, in comparison, are glued together by history, culture, religion & race (other than Japan) and the liberal democratic State architecture.

It is unclear which way India should turn. India will be an easy fit into the FOA group because of shared liberal democratic values; history and language. India could bring to that group the demographic energy, at a scale they lack. But it is in the CIRI group, that India could play the more substantive role, including by providing much needed soft power to pull-in other nascent liberal democracies. In neither group is India likely to be the decisive partner over the next 20 years, which hurts our ego.

switzerland

A third pragmatic option is to play Switzerland on an international scale. Remain a neutral, trusted adviser to both groups – neither antagonistic nor subservient to either whilst remaining focused on shared economic growth domestically. International credibility to chart this principled course would depend upon developing a domestic eco-system reflecting these principles. This course suits Indian aspirations for leadership best. But are we, ourselves, ready to live by an elevated moral and human code?

Also available at https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/indias-geo-political-choices-till-2040/

Pranab da mimics Atal ji

 

Paranab RSS

The brouhaha over Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur, as the chief guest at a valedictory function of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), foregrounds the stunted nature of politics in India.

Politics is about reaching out

First, consider the absurdity of the prevailing schoolboy notion of “team” spirit extending to a ban on supping with one’s political opponents or with those whose ideology is distant from one’s own. This downgrades politicians to being nothing more than groupies of one or the other party – much like football fans.  Amusingly, ever more rigorous behavioural tests of allegiance are demanded, as parties themselves, become ideologically indistinguishable.

The “sameness” of post ideology politics

After all, other than the fuzzy social concept of Hindutva, there is little to distinguish between the BJP and the Congress. Even Hindutva – at least the soft Vajpayee version – is associated with no discrimination across caste or religion. This naturally includes no mollycoddling of Muslims or Christian but also rules out targeted pogroms against them. The constitution makes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, honorary Hindus, even though, these are distinct religious minorities. The erstwhile Karnataka government proposed this year that Lingayats be listed as a minority religion within the Hindu pantheon.

None of this aligns with the hard Hindutva line of “nationalising” Hinduism to the exclusion of all other religions. Indian Muslims often retain their caste consciousness, as do Sikhs, even though neither religion envisages caste divisions. For Baba sahib Ambedkar, caste and not religion, was the biggest social cleavage. And he was right.

Who, amongst the opposition, is not a Hindu?

opposition

Hard Hindutva remains untested as a political instrument to consolidate Hindu votes. Who amongst the opposition – Mamta Banerjee, Captain Amarinder Singh, Bhen Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, K. C. Rao, E.K. Palaniswami or P.Vijayan, is not a Hindu, albeit of the “soft” inclusive, Hindutva kind?

Standing tall, like Atal ji, means leaving the comfort of one’s corner 

Atal ji

Second, it is odd that, on the one hand, the “secular” camp bemoans the absence of “tall” leaders, like Atal ji, who were widely acceptable, aroused respect rather than antagonism and who could be relied upon to do the right thing by the nation. Yet, they take strong exception to Pranab da emulating the Vajpayee brand of inclusiveness, by reaching out to the RSS. Pranab da did not go to Nagpur in the naïve hope of converting the RSS into a peacenik. The purpose was to show to the current lot of political leaders, that it is possible to stand firm, on what one believes, even in the midst of political opponents. After all, our diplomats do this almost daily, when they serve on committees and in nations, where the mood may be inimical to India. By participating, one shows the public, the strength of one’s conviction and the rationale thereof. Opponents may remain opponents. But at the fringe, citizens get the opportunity to rethink role models, possibly resulting in a softening of hard positions, much like a glacier crumbling at the edges, in the face of climate change.

Demonising one’s opponent is unhelpful, listening and participating is better

Third, demonization of opponents is reminiscent of what fundamentalists do. Those who espouse a secular, liberal agenda must surely shun the fundamentalist’s tool kit. Prime Minister Modi was widely criticised by the secular crowd, for not donning a skull-cap, publicly offered to him by a delegation of Muslims in Gujarat. This was an extreme case of political symbolism, marking out Mr Modi, as being different from the average leader, who has no qualms paying lip-service to minority sentiment. The hosting of Iftaar parties, by those, not keeping the fast, is a prime example of superficial secularism.

Owisi

Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP from Hyderabad and President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, claims Pranab da’s Nagpur visit has “finished” the Congress. The implication is that Muslims will no longer feel “protected” by the Congress. This is entirely possible. But it could signal progress of sorts. Minorities voting for parties which advance their modern professional or business identities, rather than feeding-off their traditional identities, would be encouraging. If the Hindu vote is splintered today, why must minority votes remain transferable en-bloc, like pocket boroughs?

May Pranab da’s tribe multiply

We need more leaders like Pranab da, who are unafraid to grow a common ground between the uber Right RSS and mainstream, secular Indians. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) should rethink its arcane electoral arithmetic, based on uniting the Hindus against the rest. The “Hindus” have never been a monolithic group. Caste and regional identities have always mattered more than the fact of being part of a family of Hindu religions. That is why Hinduism, despite all its warts – like the caste system – remains an attractive, forward looking religion, which assimilates rather than divides. Nationalising Hinduism, as the RSS is trying to do, will be as disastrously limiting, as the nationalisation of the private sector by Indira Gandhi, was for India.

Looking for repeat orders is better than one-off customers 

The BJP came as a whiff of fresh air in 2014, after a decade of more-of-the- same rule by the United Progressive Alliance. The last four years have seen some economic progress. The BJP should feel confident of citizen support based on results. It clearly overreached whilst setting targets, quite forgetting, that high aggregate targets do not matter to the average voter. Much as in commerce, repeat orders, are an outcome of a rewarding, initial customer experience. Would you buy a Patanjali product the second time, merely because their turnover is increasing rapidly or because the initial customer experience pleased you? Voters are no different. Indivisible security and shared growth remain key touchstones of State credibility. The government must strive to achieve these.

 

Resurrecting ghosts is bad politics

AMU

One wonders whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah would have been disappointed or elated at a band of misguided, ultra-right Hindus, objecting to his portrait hanging in the students’ union office of the Aligarh Muslim University. Disappointment, at becoming a hate object, would fit well. the elegant, urbane man with a taste for fine suits, that Jinnah once was. Elation would align with the politician, who fueled the creation of Pakistan and who could now turn around and say – see, I told you so.

Zero-sum world view, led to partition

After all, it is a belief in the irreconcilable co-existence of Hindus and Muslims in one country, which led to the creation of Pakistan. The breaking away of Bangladesh from Pakistan, should have put an end to the unfortunate idea that only an Islamic state can assure a secure future for Muslims. Wars between Pakistan and India have deepened the distrust of the larger “Hindu” nation across the border. To be fair, we in India, have also not done a good job of forging a national identity, so compelling, that other social allegiances – religion and caste, fade in comparison.

It is true that professional, social relationships and regional affiliations – culture, language and food – often paper over the underlying segmentation of caste and religion. But seven decades of hotly contested electoral democracy has fed on and deepened the fissures, rather than cemented the gaps. In India we tend to avoid head-on collisions, preferring to skirt around intractable problems and hope that time will solve them.

Our history bears this out. Consider that a deeply traditional society was assumed to have magically evolved, on the eve of Independence, into a rational, scientific and liberal society, resonating with the personal beliefs of a microscopic, western educated elite, which was dominant in the transition from colony to independence.

If Jinnah’s vision, etched out in the constitutional assembly of Pakistan in 1947, of a Pakistan, which would not make a distinction between citizens on religion, sounds hollow, so too does our avowed adherence to secularism – the constitutional roots of which remain shallow.

India bends to avoid breaking

India is a “soft” state. The rule of law is not absolute. It has a time dimension. It is considered administratively wise to allow it to be bent, in the expectation that, with time and changed circumstance, the weight of institutional rigidity would bring it back to its rightful place. Inevitably, such flexibility in the application of the rule of law allows free play to mala-fide interests and dilutes the credibility of State actions.

Democracy can deepen divides

Democracy has unexpectedly, sharpened religious polarization. The good news is that it has also deepened caste polarization. Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s pessimism about Dalits getting justice via democratic institutions, without suitable tweaks and safeguards for positive discrimination, resonate much deeper today, than they did in the rosy-tinted period post-Independence.

Dalit empowerment has created a conundrum for traditional Hindu society. It upends the gentlemanly agreement between Dalit and upper caste political elites, to co-exist without upending the basic power structures which bind down the ordinary Dalit. For example, grooms must not ride a horse to their wedding in emulation of a custom, which was the traditional prerogative of prosperous upper caste people or display and fire into the air in celebration, at Dalit weddings.

Everyone is relatively better off

Admittedly these are mere, distant pinpricks when viewed from above. The helicopter view of Indian society remains positive and progressive. Urbanization evens the score for Dalits. The enormous expansion of the service sector has created jobs which are skill based, caste-neutral and anonymous. Similarly, exports offer opportunities for good jobs in handicrafts, textiles, leather, metalwork, carpentry – areas where Dalit and Muslim communities dominate.

Communalism, casteism and low development feed off each other

Luckily for us, much of the religious and caste angst is in the backward areas of the north and central India, where human development indicators are low and per capita incomes are below the median level. In 2007-08 India’s median Human Development Index (HDI) was 0.47. The states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, comprising 41 percent of the total population, were well below the median.

Curiously, Pakistan in 2010, with an HDI of 0.53 was worse off that the border Indian state of Punjab at 0.61 (2008) but better than Rajasthan at 0.43 (2008). Bangladesh, in 2010, with an HDI of 0.55 was better than the Indian state on their border – West Bengal at 0.49 (2008). Cross territory comparisons are notoriously misleading. But it is startling than even several decades after political separation, the cross-border differences in South Asia are less stark than those within the country. India has made significant strides in improving human development outcomes since 2008 and achieved an HDI of 0.62 in 2015 with focused attention on backward regions. The Modi governments program of targeting around 15 percent of the total number of 640 districts for accelerated support, will further even out the spatial distribution of development and income.

In 2014 the Modi government came to power on the back of an impressive record of achievement at the state level in BJP rules states. A host of development initiatives have been unleashed, which seek to sustain macroeconomic stability, raise incomes, roll out infrastructure and reverse the ravages of environmentally unsustainable development. There are more successes than misses. This is solid ground on which to go to the people in the general elections of 2019.  It is unwise to fall into the temptation of maximizing political gains by departing from the narrative of achievement.

Also available at the TOI Blogs May 9, 2018   https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/resurrecting-ghosts-is-bad-politics/

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

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