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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Article published in the IIC journal in 2008

By Amitabha Pande

As a confirmed backbencher who had perfected the art of appearing to listen attentively to lectures while being fully asleep, I was very disbelieving when I received a command invitation to give a keynote address, of all things, on ‘Governance Reforms’! It can’t be me, I thought. This is the kind of thing that very senior, very high-minded civil servants do when they are re-employed in constitutionally secure assignments and can afford to say all the things that should be done but were not, when they were in a position to do them. So I checked with my hosts whether they really wanted to inflict yet another secretary to the government on to an audience aspiring to reach similar heights of mediocrity and whether they wanted an ‘official’ point of view, in which case I could think of many better suited than I to make nifty ‘power-point’ presentations on such serious matters as ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’, ‘smart-governance’, ‘outcomes budgeting’, et al. They gave some kind of assent; so I assume I have the license for a very personal and digressive ramble through some of the issues that have concerned and bothered me and which may also, incidentally or otherwise, reflect on some facets of governance.

Most bureaucrats, as they grow greyer and graver, tend to become quite insufferably pompous and not only lose their capacity to ask the right questions, but also become intolerant of the question raising ability in others, especially their subordinates. This is more serious than it appears. Quite apart from the fact that a pompous bureaucrat makes for terrible company at a party, the inability to ask awkward questions, constantly, often has disastrous consequences for policy-making and governance.

As bureaucrats, we know that correctly defining a problem is central to problem solving. yet, more often than not, when we do not question accepted wisdom, we confuse the problem with the manifestations of the real problem, the symptom with the disease. We then attempt to administer treatment to problems, which have been incorrectly diagnosed. Consequential failures are then attributed to poor ‘implementation’. you often hear the statement that ‘the policy was well-conceived in theory, but there was a failure of implementation’. To me, this is a contradiction in terms, almost an oxymoron. A well-conceived, well-considered policy, made after asking the most probing, the most searching, the most uncomfortable of questions can never fail during implementation because ‘implementability’ and the appropriate designs of implementation mechanisms have to be an integral part of policy thinking.

In the 1970s, the failure of the policy to give incentives for birth-control measures and aggressively achieve vasectomy targets was not a failure of implementation. It was a failure of misreading the problem as one of ‘over-population’ rather than as a problem of poverty, ill health, illiteracy and poor livelihood opportunities. How did this misreading of the problem occur? Primarily, because we failed to ask and raise questions, accepted a
Diagnosis and prescription, which was wrong, and then, vied with one another to implement it with competitive vigour. We all know the consequences of that. Could this then be called a case of a bad policy well implemented? If that is a logical absurdity so is the ‘good theory but poor practice’ argument. My advocacy of irreverence, non-conformity and intellectual restlessness, therefore, as a value to be nurtured and nourished rather than as a character flaw to be subdued and suppressed has a purpose beyond appearing to be a ‘hat-ke’ type of person. Issues of ‘style’, therefore, may not always be divorced from issues of ‘substance’.

Talking of style, I find it extremely disturbing and abhorrent that, over the years, there has been an exponential growth among both civil servant and politicians in the search for, and the hankering for, the frills and fripperies of power. Every other person stands around with a retinue of peons, gunmen and other hangers-on, all festooned with baubles and gewgaws of tinsel and satin; fancier and fancier white limousines are acquired with flagstaffs, and red and blue overhead lights, white curtains, and bigger and bolder number plates advertising the designations of their owners and their positions in hierarchy. It is now customary that children of those in power are taken to school by official, chauffeured limousines; that free tickets for entertainment events are claimed as a birthright; that discretionary quotas in professional educational institutions are appropriated wherever court scrutiny can be avoided; that scholarships to prestigious higher education centres abroad are engineered and manipulated for the children of the favoured; that contacts and contracts with big business are subtly used for securing lucrative employment openings for one’s progeny. These have now come to be taken as the accepted perks and privileges of office without even attracting the charge of compromised integrity. In fact, many defend these privileges as a surrogate compensation for poor pay.

Again, the issue here is much deeper than my aversion to lifestyle vulgarities. At one level, it is the sheer anachronism of the situation which strikes one. We take pride in being a modern democratic State, which has unshackled itself from the chains of its feudal and imperial past, and which hopes to be a big player in the international arena.
Our outward frippery, however, is more befitting of princelings of a declining Mughal empire.

More than the anachronism of the situation, however, I feel that in many ways, the vulgar displays of power on the part of those who are members of the ruling elites or those closely associated with the wielders of political and administrative power, are symptoms
of a much deeper malaise. We are all aware that some of the more widely reported recent criminal trials involve the children of those closely connected with political power and the State apparatus. In all such cases, criminal behaviour was accompanied by a display of swagger and arrogance of a kind which only comes out of knowing that State power can be used whenever required for achieving illicit and undeserved personal ends. What is even more shocking is the blatant use of power and wealth begotten out of misuse of State power to alter the course of justice.

Probing deeper into the problem, I believe that we are witnessing a very difficult socio-political development which, in many ways, is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent. The emergence of the modern State in most countries of the West was a consequence of the
emergence of classes in society. It was the revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which divided society into different social classes. The modern State came about primarily in response to the needs for managing the conflicting and competing interests among these classes as an overarching and seemingly neutral mechanism
for the exercise of legitimate authority vested in it. In the Indian subcontinent, however, the State and the State apparatus was an instrument for the furtherance of imperial interests. It did not emerge in response to the indigenous development of classes. At the time of Independence, therefore, we inherited a State and an apparatus which was ‘overdeveloped’ in relation to the development of classes. This was a thesis that was convincingly developed in the ’80s by the sociologist Hamza Alawi and remains extremely valid even today.

The consequences of inheriting an ‘overdeveloped’ State, to begin with, have meant that the growth of the State has been substantially independent of the development of classes in civil society. Today, in my view, the Indian State constitutes a class for and by itself, whose primary purpose is to expand and perpetuate itself, through self aggrandizement
and extraction of rent from the economy which, in turn, is engineered and re-engineered, produced and reproduced to yield more and more rent. So governance, in fact, often becomes a means for setting in motion a vicious cycle of rent production and rent extraction.

Let me briefly elaborate the point. First the State uses its inherent coercive power to enter as many spheres of activity it can muscle itself into including such ‘spaces’ as would traditionally be seen as belonging to civil society. This encroachment is through legislative and administrative means, by prescribing an increasingly complex set of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, by requiring the obtaining of permissions and approvals for virtually any and every action, by taking on the role of being a supplier of a whole range of services in a monopoly situation, and by itself becoming the engine as well as the driver of the economy. Having occupied an overwhelmingly dominant space– remember the concept of ‘commanding heights’ – it then delegates and decentralizes the power to say ‘no’ and the veto power both vertically and horizontally. Everyone in the government has the power to say ‘no’, to block, hinder and inhibit. The power to say ‘yes’, on the other hand, is selectively centralized so that a class of collaborators and intermediaries and facilitators can generate rent and share it with the functionaries of the State for manipulating a ‘yes’ decision. The opportunities for rent extraction, therefore, exist in every sphere and at every stage – from cornering approvals and permissions for industrial activity to acquiring land for fuelling real estate speculation, to personnel placements – there is a bewildering range of rent production and appropriation opportunities too long and numerous to list.

I believe, therefore, that the biggest problem of governance reforms is how we can whittle down the State and look at forms of governance which can progressively enlarge the sphere of action for the civil society and civil society organizations.

It is ironic that in a country that pioneered the most innovative forms of governance and social mobilization, where the best practices of the deepest forms of participatory democratic action developed many years before such innovations became a part of
the governance jargon, we sometimes tend to look outwards for models and practices. I am referring to that most impossible of romantic revolutionaries, Mahatma Gandhi, who realized, far ahead of the times, the dangers of the unchecked growth of a centralized
State. The concept of small, fully autonomous, fully empowered, interconnected and interdependent, yet free of central control, village republics which exercise all legislative, executive and judicial powers is probably the most radical and the most futuristic blueprint of good governance ever drawn up. What is remarkable is not only the boldness of the vision and the centrality of placing the individual, direct democracy and the exercise of democratic ethical choices at the centre of governance processes, but also the extent of detail to which processes have been engineered. I will not today dwell on this blueprint but only commend to you to read, absorb and marvel over the grandness, elegance and simplicity of the architecture and design of governance Gandhiji has bequeathed to us. It is a legacy which we ignore at our peril.

It is easy to dismiss Gandhiji’s blueprint as the impractical, utopian fantasy of a faddist. Quite apart from the fact that this does grave injustice to the magnitude and the magnificence of Gandhiji’s practical achievements, it also ignores the impact on social organizations of the single greatest technological development of our times – the Internet
Revolution. What has it done? It has enabled the mushrooming of small groups of knowledge-savvy entrepreneurs to come together to form very high-tech, compact, lean and highly profitable businesses. It has redefined relationships between the home, the neighbourhood and the work place. A whole new geography of relationships has developed between people, institutions and places. Geographical distances have shrunk in cyberspace. Even giant IT transnationals, such as Google, or Microsoft, or Intel, or Apple, are nothing more than a very large number of highly decentralized, geographically spread, fully empowered, small communities or collectivities, fully networked with each other, which only happen to work under a common umbrella and a common ‘brand’. The monolithic giant enterprise is a dinosaur of the past – an extinct species at least in the knowledge industry. New forms of exchange relations have emerged – barter trade in knowledge and the emergence of a knowledge currency. Internal hierarchies have been completely shattered with pyramids replaced by networked nuclei. The distinctions between owners, shareholders, management and labour have got blurred
to the point of obliteration. These fundamental changes have taken place within just a decade. Do we still dismiss the dream of decentralized, interconnected, self-governing, self-regulatory sustainable communities and neighbourhood and village republics as idle fancy?

Some progressive political leaders and civil servants are using technology to fundamentally alter governance paradigms and models. However, resistance to e-governance from entrenched interests and Luddites will take a while to make this a workable model spread all over the country. Suffice it to say that technology now makes it possible for us to move out of a paradigm, which treats governors and the governed as distinct and separate and move into one where people govern themselves without needing governors or governments. The challenge for us is to support, accelerate and empower the creation of a social environment and forms of governance and power structures that provide the framework for the expression of a collective initiative and community control as well as the development of the full capabilities and creativity of the individual. This is now a distinctly practical possibility.

Perhaps the time has come for us to make ‘Gandhigiri’ the central focus of governance reforms, and to say ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.