The appointment of Infosys Technologies Ltd co-chairman Nandan Mohan Nilekani, 54, to head the Unique Identification Authority of India, an agency working on a project to give every Indian a unique identity card, is significant.
Not just because it marks the induction of an apolitical person into the cabinet (the Manmohan Singh template has been in place for years) or that it sets the precedent of a revolving door, something akin to what happens in the US, where competent corporate professionals can move in and out of government.
It is important because it takes forward a trend that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had initiated from its first term and assiduously pursued. It is a template the UPA has employed to stay connected with expertise and rework government, policy as well as functioning, radically.
Earlier, this was focused on tapping civil society for ideas, and has now been expanded to include the corporate world, though both differ in their end objectives. Nilekani (and others of his ilk) will bring to the table a management and ideation skill-set that he has honed in Infosys; this will essentially be a new way of implementing in a bureaucracy overloaded system.
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In the case of civil society, it is entirely different. Four marquee examples of their association in initiating and developing government policy will elucidate the point. They are the establishment of the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the proposed Food Security Act and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).
The first has empowered people, particularly the vocal middle class, in an incredible way. They can, if they so desire, audit government actions. It has so far been employed mostly by the media and for individuals. But there are enough indications and anecdotes that suggest the Right to Information is being employed by civil society groups, activists and citizens to ensure accountability of government actions. No doubt, there is much to be desired in some of the controls exercised by government; but then it is a work in progress.
Then there is JNNURM, which has been designed to prepare urban India to cope with an even bigger demographic shift towards it. According to the 2001 census, nearly 285 million people, under a third of the total population, lived in urban areas; this is expected to increase to about 40% of total population by 2021. This emerged out of the discussions among members of the Bangalore Area Task Force to resolve the infrastructure and civic problems facing the software hub.
Similarly, NREGA has become part of the government’s policy matrix largely through the initiative of civil society. It has been identified as one of the factors that not only shored up rural demand when the overall economy was flagging, but also contributed in the electoral success of the UPA in the April-May general election. Again it has its critics, yet it is apparent that it has reworked delivery of a government service by dealing directly with the beneficiaries as opposed to the practice of going through the usual layers of bureaucracy.
And, finally there is the proposed Food Security Act, which, like the Right to Education Act, will guarantee all citizens fundamental rights. Both of these have largely emerged from civil society groups.
It is indeed a smart way of spreading the net wide for ideas and at the same time ensure that the government thinks out of the box. However, it is also an implicit acknowledgement of a change in the point of contact between political parties and the masses. Hitherto this job was reserved for the party cadres. Recent elections have shown the cadres are rapidly disappearing or are losing their relevance. The growing preponderance of wealth in election campaigns and easier physical connectivity to the rural interiors of India are factors that are probably accelerating this phenomenon of political disintermediation.
It is in this backdrop that civil societies have emerged as an ideal alternative. Their field work ensures that they remain sensitized to the needs of the people. Often, the work is influenced by activists and academics, which inevitably provide passion as well as research to their cause. By connecting to the right civil society groups, some political parties such as the Congress have been able to reconnect with their electorate. Politicians are quick to learn and it is not surprising that several other parties have, beginning with the campaign for the 2009 general election, begun to follow suit.
So far the contributions of civil society have worked to the government’s advantage. But then problems inevitably emerge when a system takes root. There are civil societies of all hue; if due diligence is not applied then the government could well risk becoming a tool of some motivated campaign.
To sum up then, the induction of Nilekani has only reinforced a new trend in governance, first set in motion with the induction of a technocrat as prime minister in 2004. Nobody knows whether this will or will not deliver the desired objectives. But for the moment there is no doubt that the status quo has changed.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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