The Assam Accord and its protracted aftermath, in which the recent publication of the first draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a critical milestone, raise important questions on the institutional environment of policymaking. There are some policies which, by their very nature, are characterized by a long time gap between announcement and operationalization. What are the implications of such a hiatus?

First, the currents of time may change ground realities to the point that the policy no longer achieves the ends for which it was formulated. This may be on account of qualitative changes that call for new thinking or a vastly more complex implantation scenario. But the intervening period can also be used by those adversely affected to queer the pitch. Their efforts can include exacerbating the size of the problem, for instance by redoubled immigration, marshalling vote banks, or otherwise delaying implementation.

When the time of implementation arrives, given the policy mismatch or the heightened risks, the government may well prefer to withdraw. This would happen notwithstanding any advance announcement ruling out a government retreat. Therefore, for the adversely affected public, a process of struggle resulting in a policy withdrawal is better than meek surrender. Anticipating the resulting embarrassment, policymakers may choose to eschew such policy measures altogether, even those that may be regarded as serving the collective good.

This phenomenon is called the “time inconsistency" of policymaking. At the time of the announcement of a policy, the government makes a commitment that it would like to back out of at the time of implementation. The result is suboptimal policymaking. 

However, there is another equilibrium that allows the optimal outcome to emerge. This involves the government giving up its discretionary power by making a credible commitment to take the implementation forward, irrespective of the ground realities. One way of establishing credibility is to cede control to an autonomous implementing authority. In this situation, affected parties will cease to vitiate the process and the government will be able to implement the policy in relatively more sanguine circumstances. 

The connection to the Assam case is clear. The implementation of the Assam Accord waxed and, largely, waned for more than three decades. The neglect extends to the 10 years when the Asom Gana Parishad, the organization born from the Assam Movement, was in power in the state. These 10 years overlapped with the governments of both Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the Centre. The present publication of the NRC follows a writ petition filed by a non-governmental organization, Assam Public Works, in July 2009 that resulted in the Supreme Court taking over the monitoring of the NRC updation process in December 2014. It is through such forces, which enjoy a measure of autonomy from the government, that policy credibility is established. A future in which the public eschews attempts to derail a policy given the perception of institutional commitment is the possible gain from the current situation of uncertainty. 

However, this is subject to a number of caveats. First, the institutional structure does not need to give up discretion entirely to pre-empt obstructive action by adversely affected parties. A high enough probability of implementation suffices. This implies that cases where conditions on the ground are highly risk-prone can be allowed to lapse. However, it should be made to appear that this decision has been taken in a random manner, to sustain the perception that the structure has the will for difficult policy implementation. Second, the longer the gap between policy announcement and implementation, the greater the possibility of mutual harm. Hence, such policies should come with a time stamp. Upon the passage of a minimum period of time, say 10 years, but before the completion of the maximum policy period, say 15 years, the courts can be called upon to act by any member of civil society. Intervention beyond this would be regarded as judicial overreach. The present instance, with 33 years having elapsed since the announcement of the policy, can be regarded as falling into this category. Finally, a plan for taking care of those affected must precede announcements that make the ground under the feet of so many people vanish. 

The Assam Accord was as much a promise to indigenous dwellers as it was a threat to illegal immigrants. In the nature of promises wrested at the end of a bitter struggle, it probably entailed the government biting off more than it could chew, even without the poison pellets injected by those who were adversely affected. A credible threat of going forward regardless of changed ground realities minimizes the unpalatability of these measures by preventing political disruption engineered by the adversely affected public. But fulfilling a promise, especially after the fires of the agitation have died down, is a task any government would prefer not to undertake. Again, the need for credible commitment becomes clear. 

The big question on the NRC remains the efficiency and speed with which implementation will happen. Given the rapidity with which political priorities shift, it is difficult to claim that the future will be marked by a lower level of violence. Meanwhile, who thinks about the babe in arms who came to India from Bangladesh decades ago and is told she is a foreigner in the only land she knows even as her 50th birthday approaches? 

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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