governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘political architecture’

Hypocritical India

 

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Indians are affably argumentative (Amartya Sen, 2005). Less likably, the Indian State is intensely hypocritical. It remains very medieval despite its veneer of modernism.

Examples of medievalism abound. We value Indian lives very low. No minister has ever resigned because citizens, in their charge, starved to death or died due to lack of emergency medical aid or if large numbers of students fail to pass in public schools. Corruption is a leitmotif of even the simplest public transaction like lodging a First Information Report at a police station (this is something which should even be possible by email or sms or whatsapp); avoiding getting arrested for drunk driving; getting a copy of case records from the lower courts or seeking protection from physical harassment and assault.

The best illustration of lingering medievalism and nascent modernism is the conscious use of hypocrisy by the State, to keep alive the hope of change without disturbing the status quo. There are many such State hypocrisies but five major ones stand out.

The biggest hypocrisy is the Constitutional provision that religion does not matter for State policy formulation and execution. Everything points to a different truth. The Shah Bano episode (1986) is the best example of how religion and politics have been inseparable. In this case the Supreme Court granted maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman (as is the right of any Indian woman) but the government rescinded this progressive judgment through a perverse, new law to appease orthodox Muslim sentiment. Meanwhile, to placate orthodox Hindu sentiment, which was being fanned by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu rights outfit), it also opened the gates of the disputed site of the Babri Masjid which had been locked by the government since 1885 to preserve the status quo on counter claims to possession rights by Muslims and Hindus. Incidentally 1885 is also the year the Indian National Congress was founded. By 1986 (a century later) the Congress was not averse to play the communal card with an eye to the 1989 elections.

Other more visible “red flags” of regressive religious politics are the low pan-Indian representation of Muslims in government; the increasing ghettoization of Muslims even in new urban areas; blatantly pro-Muslim or Hindu political parties and decreasing levels of productive social interaction between the two major communities since 1947. Let’s face it. The religious cleavage exists in an antagonistic form and is increasing. It is only once we accept this that we can get to talk about how to bridge it.

The second big hypocrisy is that all Indians are created equal. Democracy and the positive affirmation (reservations) policy have solidified caste much more than the dilution effect from urbanization. If Pandit Nehru saw Sardar Patel as a biased Hindu he would be shocked at the manner in which political leaders today pander to narrow interests of backward caste and Dalit vote banks. After religion, caste is the next most significant political identity of Indians. The majority of Indians wed within their caste and vote for caste candidates. Indians are not born equal. They struggle to overcome the inherited, rigid social and economic barriers of caste and very few succeed, despite the Constitution and a range of laws prohibiting caste based biases.

The third big hypocrisy (which we share with much of the World) is that women are treated equal to men. They are not and never have been. The good news here is that since this is an international problem, the state of play is fairly advanced. Policy, law and programs are working to empower women economically in the hope that social change will follow; to measure their levels of satisfaction; to assess results and to provide special protection to them in the transition period.

The fourth big hypocrisy is that poverty is reducing at a satisfactory rate. This is far from true. Even worse, asserting this statistically, as the government does, lulls us into believing that following the current path and simply doing more of what we do already, will get us to a poverty free India. It cannot.

Average per capita income needs to triple in real terms and inequality to reduce significantly before we can even claim to have found the correct direction. Some measurable indicators are a consistent growth above 8% per year; a more equal sharing between the rich and 70% of the rest, of the benefits of incremental growth (we don’t monitor this periodically) and the rate of job creation in the formal economy.

The fifth hypocrisy is that the existing governance architecture of Parliamentary Democracy is suitable for India. It is not. Both Parliament and Cabinet have ceased to play their intended role as checks on personal aggrandizement and protecting minority interests. This has been true for State Governments over the last three decades but over the past decade even the GOI Cabinet has become the poodle of Party bosses. The sanctity and effectiveness of Parliament is eroded by the behavior of lumpen elements, more familiar with brute force than reasoned argument or moral persuasion. Corruption vitiates executive decision making to the extent that the judiciary becomes the aam admi’s “de-facto government” for seeking redress.

How can this familiar tale of woe be altered?

First what is not measured and recorded cannot be dealt with. Enumerate caste/tribe and religion in the census so we know the numbers; the spatial distribution and their wellbeing. Map caste and religion data on a publicly available GIS down to the village and urban ward level so that government interventions can be calibrated to local social norms and results assessed by third parties. Assess poverty levels bi-annually using mobile based rapid data collection instruments to better relate schemes (like the Right to Food or the Right to Work) to poverty reduction outcomes.

Second review the existing incentive structures for diluting religion, caste, gender inequality, poverty and improving the functioning of the executive, parliament and judiciary.

Caste based affirmative action (reservations) clearly perpetuates an “us versus them” psychology. Diluting it by adding poverty criterion, requires more data and monitoring, but can lead to the dominance of more modern pressure groups like professional affiliations (farmers, business owners, employees), locational interests (Biharis or Mumbaikars) or ideological solidarity (environmentalists, big or small government advocates, gay rights advocates).

All government programs and projects should be evaluated for their poverty reduction potential before approval by the government and income enhancement targets fixed. Achievement against targets must be monitored by third parties with the results made public. This will reduce pork (roads to nowhere) and gold plating (capital heavy projects which do nothing for jobs-why not let private business do these?).

The Constitution should be revised to completely separate the Executive from Parliament. The PM and her deputy to be directly elected with minimum vote shares prescribed in each constituency to ensure inclusion. The ministerial executive team to be nominated by the PM and endorsed by the Parliament. The internal emergency provisions should similarly require the endorsement of parliament to protect state government autonomy from an aggressive PM. The 2014 elections are being fought in any case on the basis of “US President like” identities.

This simple change can ensure that the PM is popularly elected and is not just a “shoo-in”. It can also  improve the quality of MPs by getting rid of those who contest for Parliament seats (often by paying for them) only as an avenue for eventually getting into lucrative executive positions. Legislative ability requires skills in law and social sciences apart from a feel for the local interests an MP represents. Executive ability requires specialization and narrow experience. The system must present separate choices to the electorate and to those desiring to enter politics.

The bottom line is to transit from being an affable but hypocritical India to a more results oriented and honest India. In the modern world time is money and the long route to poverty reduction whilst changing incrementally is costly. Social stability is a merit good in the Indian plural context. But the price for social stability must be paid by the rich and not the poor or the marginalized.   

The yin-yang of Indian democracy

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Why has anarchism become a fashion statement? Is it an early warning sign of the fracturing of the edifice of liberal democracy, built up over the last century?

Parliaments are held in contempt now with their membership dominated by lumpen elements that are there to expropriate public resources for private gain. Citizens trust nothing except the decisions they take themselves. Representative democracy is passé. Direct democracy is in. Parliamentary democracy and cabinet functioning is out. Strong man rule is in.

If political architecture is under stress, economic management principles are in severe distress. In the bastions of Western liberalism there are deep reservations about the sustainability of the smart economic solutions of the last five decades. Jobless growth is not what was targeted but it is the reality. Increasing inequality was an unintended outcome of rapid growth. The unmasking of limitless human greed continues to shock. The moral turpitude of those paid handsomely to be in positions of financial and political trust seems to have no bounds.

In the 1950s and 1960s we put our faith in planned public expenditure financed by foreign aid and debt to pull us out of the poverty trap. Poverty remained with us.

In the 1970s we fingered big business as the villain and put our faith in public enterprises to provide jobs. Instead we built a small molly coddled labour aristocracy and stamped out India’s entrepreneurial exuberance, whilst distributing the stagnant economic pie in ever thinner slices.

In the 1980s we put our faith in dismantling the complex system of government controls which were strangulating industry and trade. We found that whilst this was an adequate strategy to give “escape velocity” to small, island countries, large economies like India needed deeper domestic reform.

In the 1990s and 2000s we tried to jettison structural inefficiencies and segmentation in the labour and financial markets, liberalized the external account and kick started private infrastructure development and this worked well. In the 2010s we tried to do more of the same and it stopped working, partly because the world had slowed down, partly because we had run out of reform steam.

We are drifting now into an electoral storm in 2014, bewildered, lost and directionless, stumbling over the discarded political shibboleths of the past and feeling our way across the new crevasses in liberal economic thought.

The rise of Modi and of Kejriwal illustrates this discontent with established doctrine. The appeal of both leaders cuts across traditional vote banks of caste and class, though Modi is more constrained by his “Hindudtva” image on the issue of religious pluralism.

Elites are not comfortable with either leader because they sense in both the desire to smash the status quo, built assiduously over the last six decades, ensuring elite appropriation of public resources for private gain.

It matters little to Modi’s supporters that he does not pay lip service to “secularism”. Similarly it matters not a jot to Kejriwal’s supporters that he defies established principles of good governance in economic management by subsidizing energy and water and generating regulatory uncertainty for private industry and finance.

Neither set of supporters really care that both leaders are openly autocratic and self-opinionated and that neither has much time for the niceties of bureaucracy and traditional political decorum. The bottom line for their supporters is that the established doctrines have not served them well and so they are willing to dive into the deep end with their eyes closed.

There is a new, harsh political reality out there. Gandhi’s principles have been spurned and today the ends justify the means. Gandhi’s instruments of social mobilization however are much in demand; personal contact with citizens, effective communication in a familiar idiom instead of hectoring; a heavy reliance on personally walking the talk and never getting too far from the “nautanki” format of public discourse, so popular in India.

Cynics would call this “lumpenisation”, the demise of all that was good and proper in Indian democracy. Realists would argue that till the masks are ripped away and the ugly reality underneath revealed, there can be no reconciliation and no change. In politics, genuflecting to liberal democracy in public whilst working to deepen the roots of mutually exclusive traditional identity groups, as captive political vote banks, has been the hypocritical norm.  

Liberty is achievable only when the masks we habitually wear, of caste, class, religion and culture are ripped off and an honest conversation started, amongst ourselves, of how we can get ahead.

As the battle lines are drawn for 2014, it is useful to be mindful that every Modi juggernaut needs a Kejriwal to keep the collateral damage of an overwhelming majority in check. The rule of the multiple of 10 can be useful. If Modi corners no more than ten times the seats Kejriwal gets, it will ensure that the rest will group themselves around these two nuclei; both of whom are progressive and compatible yin and yang.

 

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