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India’s political hangover

India’s political hangover
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First Published: Tue, Jan 25 2011. 08 43 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Jan 25 2011. 08 43 PM IST
This was a curious month in international politics. One dictator fled his country and another returned home after 24 years in exile.
The jasmine revolution in Tunisia eventually forced the despotic Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee in the face of peaceful street protests against his regime. The brutal Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc, flew back to a broken Haiti some 24 years after he was ousted from power. A people fed up with repression forced out one autocrat and another returned with hopes of winning the trust of a people he had brutalized.
At a time when India celebrates its 61st Republic Day against the backdrop of popular angst and a drift in governance, we have to realize how lucky we are to be living in a country with constitutional values and the rule of the law, especially given the fact that many international observers genuinely believed (and some hoped) that India would either implode or sink into dictatorship after 1947.
These past few months have provided ample reason for worry and anger, from corruption scandals to directionless policy. Ensuring that the Indian state serves citizens and repairs its fractured legitimacy are two big challenges over the next decade. The capacity of the state to deliver public goods and maintain order also needs to be developed.
Manmohan Singh has often spoken about the need to reform governance since he became prime minister in 2004; the time to act is now.
Here is an attempt to map out the challenges, based on data provided by the World Economic Forum in its annual World Competitiveness Report. The information provided in this publication on the quality of institutions gives us a good idea about where we are doing well and where urgent reform is necessary.
India does better or on a par with global averages in areas such as protection of property rights, judicial independence, transparency in government policy making, reliability of police services, efficacy of the legal framework in settling disputes and efficiency of government spending. We come out badly in other key areas such as diversion of public funds, public trust in politicians, bribe taking and favouritism in government decisions.
There is a pattern here. India does well in areas that have independent institutions or clear rules, while we do very badly in areas where there is bureaucratic discretion or political involvement. It is the well-known divide between rules and discretion. This pattern could give reformers a broad idea of how to go forward in governance reforms: strengthen institutions and minimize discretion.
The way in which Indian companies adjusted to the new global economy could offer some lessons. Most Indian companies were protected and inefficient till the reforms of 1991. Important business leaders were opposed to some of the more drastic reforms, but Indian companies soon saw the writing on the wall and spent the 1990s reinventing themselves.
Many business groups took a close look at their portfolios and asked tough questions about which areas they should focus on. Many units were shut down or sold. Those that remained were made more efficient thanks to tight financial controls and changes on the shop floor.
Indian industry eventually emerged stronger and more dynamic. A state is more complex than a firm, but there are useful lessons here. The Indian state could also do with many tough years of strategic reorientation, re-engineering of processes and strong financial controls.
Another good port of call is the detailed discussion in the Constituent Assembly on the nature of the new republic. B.R. Ambedkar had asked in a prophetic speech: “If we wish to maintain democracy, not merely in form but also in fact, what must we do?”
Ambedkar offered three suggestions that remain relevant even today. First, we have to stick to constitutional methods and abandon the path of both bloody revolution and civil disobedience. Second, we have to break out of the habit of political bhakti, or hero worship. Third, our political democracy needs to be supplemented with social democracy.
Rajendra Prasad had said: “We have prepared a democratic constitution. But successful working of democratic institutions requires…willingness to respect the viewpoints of others, capacity for compromise and accommodation.”
These warnings have gone unheeded, which is one reason why we sometimes seem like an illiberal republic. The glorification of Kashmiri militants, Naxalite rebels and (more recently)terrorists on the fringes of the Hindutva movement does not help matters either. Yet, for all these faults, political bargaining continues to be done within the constitutional framework and the ballot box still offers a reasonable way to punish political leaders.
The role of violence and mob rule is increasing, however. Political scientists have shown that violence becomes a more important method of political expression when the quality of constitutional institutions is poor. Arresting institutional decline and reforming our political culture are essential if the aspirations of more than a billion Indians are to be met.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is managing editor of Mint. Your comments are welcome at cafeeconomics@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Jan 25 2011. 08 43 PM IST