governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘decentralisation’

BJP – mega political mall

bjp-new-office

The rout of the BJP, in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections, were loudly touted as evidence of the deep roots of the “idea of India” — so dear to the Left-leaning, “secular” intelligentsia. Two years later, Bihar is back in the BJP stable and Delhi limps along with Arvind Kejriwal nursing his 2017 defeat in the Delhi municipal elections. In parting ways with his “less than kosher” partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk — and realigning with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has apparently, revised his views on the Hobson’s choice between aligning with corruption or with communalism. He has now switched to the latter, as the lesser evil, possibly nudged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public resolve to abolish both by 2022. In the meantime, he forfeits the somewhat unlikely “halo” around him as the leader of a national “secular” Opposition. Muslims and dalits also face this choice now — between a clean and effective, albeit Hindu, government or self-serving, dynastic patriarchs, posing as ersatz secularists.

Does consolidating the Hindu vote equal communalism?

shah dalit home

For the BJP, the charge of “communalism” has little meaning. Ending “casteism” – another vicious scourge, is only possible, if the Hindu vote is consolidated, ending the use of narrow vote banks based on traditional identities, around which regional parties have grown deep roots, like the RJD in Bihar and Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP’s strategy is to consolidate the Hindu vote across regional and caste divides to strengthen its majority government at the Centre and control enough states to cover two-thirds of the voter population. The idea is to become like a mega political mall, encompassing diverse shades of opinion. Smaller parties, like the JD(U) are welcome to buy-in or opt-out, but none would be critical to the BJP’s survival.

The BJP sees no contradiction between resolving to root out “communalism” whilst consolidating” the Hindu vote by ending archaic caste divides. It wants Muslims and Christians, both foreign religions, to harmonise their religious beliefs to fit seamlessly into the dominant local culture.

Deeper decentralisation can be a bridge to communal harmony

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India is very diverse even within large states. Eating beef and pork is fine in predominantly Christian Nagaland. Bonding over beef is the custom in Kerala for Muslims, Christians and many Hindus. But this would be unthinkable in Uttar Pradesh. A more decentralised India can give greater space for making locally acceptable choices about customs and norms at the local government level. But the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. What can be settled at the village level is decided in Delhi or a state capital where the the minority viewpoint gets ignored in favour of across the board acceptability. Today, local governments lack the administrative, political and financial clout to matter. This means for now, the onus is on the minority community in any area to negotiate workable local compromises on cultural and religious practices which conflict with the locally dominant majority. Detractors of this “majoritarian” approach say this illustrates the disenfranchised status of minorities

Nuns

To be fair to Muslims and Christians, it is a stretch for them to reach such local accommodations. They have been misleadingly nurtured, since 1947, into expecting that the Indian State shall provide special mechanisms to safeguard their right to religion and facilitate their active political participation, in view of their numerical disadvantage. They have never before, encountered a government that is coldly dismissive of their expectations and has, at best, no desire to go beyond the letter of the law.

muslim women

What does being secular mean?

There is also disagreement on what being secular means. Should the State actively shun anything to do with religion, as in France? Or be even handed with all religions, as in the UK? Or should we further refine our version of secularism. Political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, is of the view that, in India, both the State and religions influence each other. The State actively intervenes in religion — as for example taking over the administration of Tirupati or subsidising Haj travel for Muslims or opening Hindu temples to dalits. Similarly, religion actively influences State action. Demolition of the Babri Masjid by karsevaks in 1992 breached the law. But the State watched passively out of deference to Hindu sentiment. In 1986, an executive ordinance was used to specifically nullify a Supreme Court order granting maintenance to Shahbano, a Muslim divorcee – a practise unsupported by Islamic law which had greatly agitated Muslim clerics.

Modern Indian culture is syncretic – but dominantly Hindu

Shahrukh 2

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu, as best illustrated by Bollywood. Our movies cater predominantly to Hindu cultural settings, ironically often on the backs of film stars, many of whom are Muslim. With 80 per cent of the population being Hindu, it cannot but be otherwise.

The constitution reflects the fraternal bond between the State and Hinduism 

Fraternal bonds

Similarly, the founders of our Constitution were prescient in anticipating that Hindu sentiment would be politically dominant. Article 25 of the Constitution, excludes Christian and Muslim religious and social institutions from State regulation. But it specifically limits the fundamental right of Hindus (which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) to practice religion, by allowing the State to intervene for reforming Hindu religious institutions. This asymmetric provision reflects an assumption that there can never be a conflict between the Indian State and Hinduism. But the potential for a conflict of interest between the State and Muslims or Christians, exists and must be guarded against.

Muslims and Christians are not the only ones isolated by the Hindu revivalism. One-fourth of Hindus (dalits and backward tribal communities) are uncomfortable with traditional, Brahmanical religious practices. Often these are just a cover for hanging onto the asymmetric power structures benefiting the upper and the “Mandal”-empowered backward castes. Babasaheb Ambedkar articulated this apprehension as a deal-breaker for political cohesion.

Testing the efficacy of mega political power

Should we be worried by a BJP mega political power mall? We are schooled to believe that pervasive, political power begets authoritarianism. This hypothesis will now be tested. The BJP believes that a “national” government, in which, political sub-interests, defined by gender, caste, region or religion, “work” the system from within, is better than the template version of parliamentary democracy, in which an active opposition keeps the transgressions of the ruling party “in check”.

The BJP had 100 million registered members in 2015 — 18 per cent of the registered voters. It has a massive majority in the Lok Sabha and shall replicate this majority in the Rajya Sabha as legacy UPA members retire. The BJP directly controls states comprising 54 per cent of India’s population whilst another 23 per cent of the population lives in states ruled by allies or jointly with the BJP. Together this constitutes more than three-fourths of the population. Why then does it feel compelled to grow bigger?

BJP rule

In any competitive market, to stand still is to lose ground. Indian sporting teams are often criticised for lacking the “killer” instinct to convert their strengths into wins. But in politics, as in business, this genetic flaw is an asset. Leaving something on the table boosts the “feel good” factor for all. This has merit in politics, where there are no permanent winners or losers.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age , August 1, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020817/the-politics-of-religion.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

African “big men” in India

African heads of State will don Modi kurtas and party in New Delhi, October 27 to 29. The occasion is the third meeting of the Indo African Summit. It would be quite a sight to see Robert Mugabe, age 91, President of Zimbabwe for the last two decades, take a turn or two on the dance floor. But we may have to make do with the more agile President Jacob Zuma.

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President Jacob Zuma of South Africa at his agile best

Hopefully, the parallel with ASEAN will not extend to Minister Sushma Swaraj having to sing at the concluding party, just to liven up the proceedings, along the lines of Madeline Albright, US Secretary of State in 1997, who crooned her version of “Don’t cry for me Argentina”.

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Minister Sushma Swaraj with members of parliment

Beyond the theatrics, it is tough to figure out what we want to achieve with the possibly forty heads of state or governments and many more senior politicians and officials from Africa who are expected to participate. Similar summits were held in 2008 and again in 2011.

Claim the 21st century for Africa and India

Demographics suggests that the second half of this century belongs to Africa and India. But to claim this “historical destiny” India and Africa have to do the right things. One such is to put the right institutions in place.

This “mirror” long term need is what binds India to African countries far more than the standard diplomatic fare; trade and investment, terrorism and security. These are merely the transactional outcomes of sound institutional development and better dealt with at specialized fora which already exist like the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions and their offshoots.

Context is key for developing “best fit” institutions. Context varies enormously between India and Africa and even more so within Africa. But one common theme across most African countries is a rich endowment of natural resources (except Rwanda and Burundi) which distinguishes them from resource poor India.

In contrast, adherence to broad democratic norms is increasingly the preferred option across Africa. Swaziland and Lesotho remain the only kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa. Yesterdays “dictators” are today’s leaders, who test their popularity in elections.

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Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda

India has been the world’s largest democracy since 1947. In Africa Senegal has similarly been a multi-party democracy since 1960 when it became independent. Senegal had its “Indira Gandhi moment” in the first decade of this century when then President Wade tried to unduly empower the executive through constitutional amendments. The democratic backlash was strong and he lost in elections to his own Prime Minister in 2012- President Small still leads today. Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and later South Africa, Botswana and Namibia also have stellar democratic records.

African public service structures have evolved unlike ours which have atrophied

The institutional architecture within which government functions is critical for achieving developmental goals. Within the broad institutional architecture the manner in which the civil service is structured is key. India has much to learn from select countries. South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia for instance, have developed and maintained outstanding public service structures and traditions.

These bureaucracies have weathered far more tumultuous times than we in India have ever encountered in the post- World War II period. But they remained committed, motivated and deliver results- three characteristics that are iffy to apply across the board in India.

India presents a fascinating case study of asymmetric development. On the one hand we have scientists sending space expeditions to Mars. At the other end poor villagers still rely on traditional healers and “bangali” doctors- sometimes out of choice and habit but mostly out of compulsion since the public health service is so poor.

It is fashionable today to advocate the case for asymmetric development- getting reform in through the door wherever possible without attempting an across the board improvement in the civil service. India is a good example of how this does not work. Islands of excellence remain just that cordoned and insulated from the ills that afflict service areas not considered critical from the short term (sighted) point of view.

India manufactures or assembles more brands of cars, scooters and motorcycles in India than it is possible to remember. We pride ourselves on our in-house capacity for developing infrastructure. We have embarked on a “make in India” mission. Foreign students come to India to study management, medicine and engineering.

Yet, within the government, it is rare to find an official with the relevant technical qualifications, in a senior position with decision making powers. This is not to say that our top bureaucrats are not highly educated. Invariably they do have these credentials, in a general way. Many may even be a PhD. It doesn’t get better. But rarely is it that the academic qualifications and the experience overlap. This disregard for “technical excellence” as a driver of good public administration is at the root of our inability to apply the vast knowledge reserves we have built up to improving public services on the ground.

We should learn for countries in Africa which have done away with the hierarchical, cadre based, colonial administration systems they inherited and have moved on to a position based meritocracy. South Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania are examples.

Our federal structure is an outstanding example of contextual decentralization

Whilst our Constitution is a Union of States rather than being a federation like the US Constitution, it is a dynamic yet robust instrument. It has been amended one hundred times since 1952 but it remains the driving force for growing the “Idea of India” as a single nation comprising unparalleled diversity in religion, ethnicity and culture.

Much of richness of the Indian public management experience derives from the significant levels of devolution to the thirty state governments. Around 40% of the Union government’s revenues are made available to state governments as their share of tax. An additional 15% of funds are transferred to state governments for executing national development schemes. State governments also have their own sources of revenue.

The size and character of states varies enormously in India. These range from the mammoth Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a population of 200 million (the next biggest state is Bihar with pop. 100 million) to tiny Sikkim population 600,000.

Uttar Pradesh is larger than the largest African nation-Nigeria-pop. 189 million, renowned for its oil rich economy, entrepreneurial people and pluralistic society.

Sikkim, sticking out like a “thumbs up” between Nepal and China in North Eastern India with streets neat as a pin and people, as disciplined as the Rwandans closely resembles the well governed, gorgeous, North Western African island nation of Cape Verde.

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Cape Verde

Africa manages regional co-operation exceedingly well

India should look closely at the cross country arrangements within Africa which facilitate development based on the comparative advantage of countries. Power pooling across the Southern Cone countries and West Africa is one such example. Access to sea routes for land locked countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda via rail, road and pipelines provides good models for cost sharing across Indian states. Truth and reconciliation type negotiations are another African specialty.

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Presidents Bashir of Sudan and Salva Kiir of South Sudan- friendly foes.

The Indian institutional arrangements for regional integration have fallen into disuse and are ineffective. Water sharing arrangements are particularly dissatisfactory and legal disputes linger for years, increasing conflict and retarding development. Similarly implementing the Goods and Services tax- a single, value added tax, to replace state level taxes on the production and sale of products, to which all parties are agreed in principle, has become harder and more painful than extracting a tooth.

It may have been really useful to arrange sessions where state chief ministers could have interacted with heads of state depending on areas of mutual interest with their officials following up on the detailed areas of cooperation.

We are not China

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aarti” evening prayers on the banks of the Holy Ganga

Finally how can we  differentiate ourselves from China whilst dealing with Africa? Clearly the worst option would be to emulate the muscular Chinese style of economic diplomacy. For one we just don’t have the firepower. For another the principle of comparative advantage advocates that everyone must play to their strengths.

China’s comparative advantage is cash-lots of it. But the Chinese model of development is not something which is easily replicated because of the size of its economy, the homogeneity of its population and its long history of splendid isolation. Also it is unlikely that exporting workers in droves to implement projects overseas is a sustainable or effective developmental strategy for the beneficiary countries.

Our comparative strength is that we are the “Constantinople of Parliamentary Democracy”. We straddle the democratic heritage of the West and the traditional Asian democratic principles. In doing so we have evolved a home spun democratic model. Like all jugaad (learning by doing) the ends of this model are a bit jagged.

parliament

The Indian parliament on high alert post a terrorist attack in 2001

Nevertheless, it is a model which works- both for economic growth and to uphold the human liberties of speech, association and property. Within this generic model of development lie gems of granular achievement at the state government and local level, which provide solutions to the universal development barriers of elite control, low initial capacity, nascent institutions and less than adequate rule of law mechanisms.

India must use the Summit to share these nuggets of experience which are at the heart of building institutional resilience for sustainable development in poor countries.

1542 words

Stop being a bully State

beef

Does the proposed national “beef ban” and the rabid intolerance for “beef-eaters” illustrate a new and disturbing trend in Indian politics? Are we squandering away our “secularism”?

India has been a “secular” state in practice all along. All the bells and whistles to ensure equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of religion, have existed in the Indian Constitution. But via the infamous Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976, the term “secular” was inserted into the Preamble somewhat superfluously.

This attempt to put a “face” to the “fact”, should have been the first signal that our commitment to treating all Indians as one, was doomed to be only skin deep. Thereafter, it has been open season for most political parties to play strategically with the sentiments of both, the majority Hindus and minorities — Muslims being the largest — for periodic political benefit.

inter faith

photo credit: http://www.jainsamaj.org

Religion and community feeling matters

At an individual level, Indians from all faiths accept the basic proposition that culture and religion, which are closely interwoven, are personally important. They also, generally, accept that the individual has to bow down to community norms. This acceptance of religious and community dominance is not without legal precedent.

Our Constitution via Article 48A of the Directive Principles of State Policy requires that the state take steps to “prohibit the slaughter of cows”. Admittedly, the Directive Principles are not justiciable in a court of law. They are more in the nature of guidance for future action. But, consider that cow protection is clubbed with protecting worker rights; the educational rights of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes; improving nutrition levels, protecting the environment and promotion of international peace and security!

The Constitution has been amended one hundred times till now. But the primacy for cow protection in our constitutional vision, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, still stands.

calf

photo credit: http://www.pinterest.com

Democracy without development remains backward looking

What this illustrates, is that democracy is a blunt instrument for social inclusion. The incentive to pander to majority votes is too intense. Second, things become worse when the political architecture assumes, like ours does, that all religions have similar social and economic demographics and, hence, proportional representation is not needed for minorities to protect their voting power. Ironically, this is exactly what we are urging Nepal not to do under their new Constitution and to instead protect the voting power of the “minority”, coincidentally Indian-origin, Madhesis and Tharus, who live in the Terai adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The romantic hope of the “Macaulay generation” in 1947 was that as India became richer, it would resemble the West, where churches are empty but the bars are full. India is richer today. But religion and tradition remain deeply embedded. We are unlikely to lose our religious identities any time soon.

Decentralisation: the still born option for enhancing inclusion

Another route to manage a heterogeneous society, like ours, could be to decentralise deeply. This was tentatively envisaged under the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act and Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992. These amendments sought to transfer the management of local affairs to village panchayats and urban municipalities. But the attempt was stillborn. We remain a fairly centralised polity. State governments get seduced to toe the “Imperial line”, dished out from Delhi along with Central funds, rather than go their own way, which is so much more effort intensive.

Our recent experience with the reorganisation of state governments shows that decentralisation can take the steam out of corrosive identity politics. The creation of five new states out of Assam in the 1960s and ’70s is a good example. The proliferation of state governments in India, since Independence (from 16 to 29) lends further credence to this strategy for dampening identity politics.

To cater to our cultural and religious mosaic, India needs either many more homogenous states or more powers delegated to local governments, particularly large cities. Consider that if Mumbai was a city-state, it was unlikely to have opted for a “beef ban”. But as part of the state of Maharashtra, it has no choice.

Isn’t it time to come clean? Our secularism is limited to being a benign, quasi-Hindu state, where minority religious rights are constitutionally protected. This is very similar to enlightened Muslim-majority states like Jordan or Egypt both of which have significant Christian populations.

Secularism is not a State without religion

Our brand of secularism is too passive for anything but harmful politicking. It is time to make it proactive and more effective. Here are three suggestions.

First, minority rights must be explicitly recognised, but subordinated to the common law rights of workers, children and the differently-abled. These, and the principle of gender parity, should be “core values” cutting across all religious rights.

Second, if we are to ban beef, despite the significant adverse economic impact on those who trade in it, how about being even-handed and also banning pork — meat considered impure in Islam? This removes, at one stroke, the perceived discrimination against Muslims and Christians, both of whom eat beef. After all, India has more Muslims that any other Islamic country, except Indonesia; enough Christians to be notionally the 22nd most populous Christian country in the world — just ahead of Australia — and the second largest in Asia after the Philippines.

In any case there are sound environmental and health grounds for banning both beef and pork. We can live, quite happily, on goat meat, fish and seafood. Breeding pigs is a flourishing micro-business today for Hindu dalits, but there is no gain without some pain.

Third, our Constitution is explicit about helping SCs and STs, all of whom are assumed to be the poor and underprivileged, within the broad umbrella of Hinduism. Isn’t it fair then to also extend specific, targeted facilities to poor Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains who are as helpless as the poor Hindus? Selective benefits for “underprivileged” Hindus look awfully like pandering to the majority community.

A benign and forward-looking ruler must be even-handed. That is raj dharma. Religious appeasement must be uniform not selective. This is difficult since at the root of appeasement is arbitrariness.

But there is a fourth option, if the first three are not practical. Stop being a bully state. We have done very well thus far as a “soft” state, wary of displeasing anyone — except perhaps our neighbours.

Becoming a bully state is the worst option, especially because we have the institutions and the skills to become an inclusive, rational, developmental state. Perception is everything in today’s social media-powered world. Let’s not squander our common future for petty temporal gain.

“Insaaf ki ghanti” is ringing. It must be heard.

jehangir

Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age October 13, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/stop-being-bully-state-375

Democracy’s Flabby Middle

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No, this is not about Modi’s expanding girth.

It’s about how archaic are our systems for “group think” on public affairs. It is not just about having to elect an MP, an MLA or a Councilor to represent us. “Group think” systems are institutionalized at various levels.  In business and industry we have the “federations and chambers” which presumably represent business and “trade unions” who represent labour; in politics we have political parties; in communities we have Civil Society Organisations who claim to represent specific interest groups and of course every religion has its own management hierarchy.

Most of us have neither the time nor the capacity to contribute full time to public affairs and hence the need for a set of intermediaries to manage interest groups in public affairs. The question really is do we have too many people doing too little for us? Are intermediaries distorting our messages? Are we victims of the “agency problem” where the representative becomes the boss of the owner?

Can direct democracy help? Yes it can. Direct democracy cuts out of the “noise” of middlemen by giving voice to citizens. Direct democracy can work, even in a continent sized, heterogeneous country like India, thanks to social media technology. In the world of IT the strategy for managing a social problem, like high crime rates, is developed by convening a “hackathon”. This is a gathering of concerned citizens, who define the problem; babus, who identify the administrative constraints and geeks, who create techie solutions like mapping crime spots on a street map to check if crime clusters around poorly lit streets or is time sensitive.

By defining the problem narrowly the solutions become simpler. The application “Ushahidi”, improves policing by crowd sourcing data to pinpoint violence (Kenya 2008) or enhances disaster management by identifying emergency hot spots (Haiti 2009).

Here are some options to cut the democratic flab:

  1. Why is it necessary for MPs and MLAs to attend Parliament/Assembly by being physically present? Why don’t they participate via video conferencing from their constituencies? Technologically, this presents no problems since most districts and blocks are now connected to broad band. Consider how this could solve the “agency problem”. MPs could not play hooky, as they do today, if she they were on camera. Imagine the sense of citizen participation, as MPs debate from their homes, whilst surrounded by their adoring and watchful constituents. This can cut the flab from Parliament by saving on travel cost and eliminate the time wasted in trooping into the well. Parliament would become as dry and efficient as a modern stock exchange, where people come to transact business not engage in theatrics. Also consider the number of productive jobs created across the country to expand the enabling IT eco-system.
  2. Many of the issues, which are debated in Parliament/Assemblies, can be better informed by mobile phone based surveys conducted by a third party. Currently, mobile ownership is at 70% of households (with rural HH lagging) but ownership is growing fast and should be encouraged for a variety of social purpose applications, including mobile money. What do Indians think about the need for a specific rape law? Should political parties come under the RTI? Should there be minimum academic qualifications for MPs? These matters are far too important, to rely on Rahul to intervene, on our behalf (as he did in the case of the criminal bachao ordinance) every time. In any case, we don’t want to “rely” on anything except our “group common sense” to guide babu actions via legislation
  3. Decisions are best taken closest to the people affected by them. This is the time tested management axiom of “subsidiarity”. This implies large scale decentralization of decision making powers and finance from the central and state government downwards to district and block level elected bodies, where 85% of the elected officials are located but who have less than 5% of the powers. Decisions become less complex and easier to implement as the extent of heterogeneity decreases. The options and trade-offs are easier to understand to take a rational decision. The level of citizen participation is always higher because the issues are more immediate and relevant. Decentralized decision making fosters “innovation” and creativity.  All these are good reasons for pushing decentralization without any enhanced fiduciary risk, which a technology enabled Public Financial Management system can ensure.

 The Right to Information Act was the first “breach in the Bastille” which improved “access to information”. The second barrier awaiting removal is the noise of flabby “agents/representatives”, via whom citizens are forced to voice their opinions in public debate. Technology can help us to reduce the transaction cost and enhance the prospects for direct participation.  Phone lagao, desh bachao.

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