Government of India responds to Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan said this yesterday

In response, this is Nalin Kohli, BJP spokesperson:

Taking a dig at Khan’s comment at an award ceremony on Monday that his wife Kiran Rao had wondered if they should move out of India, he said many people chose to settle abroad for various reasons, including education, career, business and taxation.

“This is an individual choice. There is no constitutional bar on it,” he said…


…The very fact, he said, that the country was witnessing a free debate, including expression of dissent, was an evidence of a tolerant society. “Can something like this happen in the neighbouring country?” he asked

Aamir Khan said many sensible things yesterday, and made the mistake of bringing up leaving India as an option in response to what bothered him. The government needs to either respond with dignity, or not respond at all. In any case, “you are free to leave the country” sounds like a retort in a teenagers’ brawl.

Trotting out these arrogant lawyers is what cost the UPA dearly – BJP should not forget that.

Modi, his colleagues in the government and his party, and their supporter trolls must realise something: opposing a politician is not intolerance. Banning a book/movie, ad-hoc rewriting of history, being unscientific, dictating what people can eat, watch, etc – that is intolerance. There are two groups most squarely affected by that – one, the poor and powerless who face the brunt of majoritarianism; and two, public figures, whose views or work draw violent reactions. The poor are fighting their own battle – they are not in the public eye, as they rarely have access to mainstream media, much less social media; on the other hand, public figures who have access will naturally use the media to highlight their fears or perceptions. As citizens, and people operating in the pubic space, their experiences and perceptions may be different from social media warriors who spread venom and abuse from their cell-phones and laptops.

The political Indian comes of age

Over the last eighteen months, we have been exposed to a masterclass in governance. The freshly minted politically-minded Congress-hating (predominantly male) Indian is the typical profile of what I will call in this column – the ‘political Indian’. This is the group that brought the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power – either by actively campaigning for it, or by trusting in the myth of the one-man miracle worker, or due to their extreme disdain for all things Congress.

Understandable then, that they have been the primary recipients of this intensive training in the realities of governing India. In place of the unhindered frustration, ridicule and abuse thrown at the previous government over issues such as corruption, economy, law and order, and foreign relations, the political Indian now exhibits tremendous sagacity and patience. After all, those undoing the damage inflicted upon this great nation over the past six decades (or it is the past seventy decades?) need our unstinted support.

This change in attitude and the forbearance that came with it is thanks to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The lessons from the last eighteen months have been rich and varied in dimension, and together, they have altered the vantage points of the political Indian with respect to the intricacies of governing a country as large and complex as India.

So what are these lessons that have been learnt?

  • First is the primacy of development in our political discourse. The politics of caste is now passe, ‘development for all’ is what matters. Shared prosperity is the most effective way to come out of social conflicts. Governments in India, both at the centre and the states need to focus on economic reforms that are long overdue. Creation of a single unified market, with instruments such as the Goods and Services Tax is critical.
  • Next, we now have a better understanding of the federal structure of our country. Delhi is a ‘glorified municipality’ and Bihar is casteist. So it is not surprising that the charms of national parties fail there. Of course, state elections are fought on local issues, and are not a referendum on the performance of the central government. Knowing this, we must be committed to strengthening the federal structure of our country. State governments matter. Our constitution sets out a list of exclusive domains for state governments, and yet the union government attempts to routinely infringe upon them in one form or the other. The true spirit of federalism demands that states get more autonomy in managing their affairs. Law and order is a state subject, and so are building schools, clinics houses and toilets. If states fail, the primary responsibility for this lies with them.
  • Third, our social fabric at the moment is irreparably damaged. Rapes, caste-based violence and atrocities against minorities reflect an ugly side of our culture and are divisions all political parties – bar none –opportunistically exploit. While specific incidents can be prevented through better law and order arrangements, if an overall climate of hate and fear is created, the responsibility for that lies with us and not with any political or cultural organisation. When the government law enforcement machinery intervenes, it does so to protect us, and to do so, it can impose reasonable restrictions on individual freedom.
  • Fourth, in order to understand the insidious nature of propaganda that fuels this hate, look very carefully at the role of the media. Corporate-owned media have corporate (and political) agendas. We need to guard against becoming passive recipients of news, examining even reportage as carefully as we would political rhetoric. It is therefore also pointless to hyper-ventilate in a manner similar to prime-time television studios on issues that are picked out for debate, night after night.
  • Fifth, our economy is intricately tied to the global economy. Prices of oil and other crucial commodities, the Chinese economy and the Greek bail-out – all have an effect on our indicators fare, at least in the short to medium term. Monsoons continue to determine the fates of our farmers and governments. This is unlikely to change in the short-term. One can fault the union government of the day for its emergency response, but there are structural issues at play that are often beyond their control.
  • Sixth, international relations are complex. Bilateral relationships with our neighbours such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh need great political finesse and state-craft; treaties on black money, extradition of terrorists, maritime law, etc are often a matter of give-and-take. Even a small country like Nepal can teach us a lesson in constitutional sovereignty. Multilateral agreements can have a large bearing on these issues, as we have seen with climate change negotiations.
  • Finally, the most important lesson is that no one man possesses a magic wand to do away with all our problems. As the points above demonstrate, good governance requires a collective effort towards reform, which needs a combination of the ‘big-bang’ and ‘gradual’. This also means that while 100-day targets and the like are traditional political posturing, they do not reflect the rigours of governance.

On one hand, these lessons make for a more ‘civil’ citizens – a key attribute for domestic peace and calm. As the political Indian grows to be more accepting of the constraints to good governance, he insists – louder than ever – that those asking more of the government of the day have no locus standi. So when today, writers, filmmakers and scientists protest, they are comfortably dismissed as politically motivated and irrelevant. Also, in the current scenario where an unending calendar or state-level election campaigns continue to take precedence over the complex task of governing the country, a patient citizenry is of the essence. This patient political citizen also dispenses sagely advice on how to interpret electoral trends when faced with adverse results. While  so, their moral compunctions regarding corrupt, illiterate or dynastic politicians come to the fore.

But there is another important purpose the political Indian now serves, and this relates to Brand India on the global stage. Indians have always prided themselves in being different from the rest of the world, and we have to continue to strive to retain that characteristic. From our past, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and our espousal of the ‘mixed economy’ stand out at exemplars of our differentiation on the global stage that were also used to feed our domestic pride.

This time around, it is a unique model of governance that we wish to sell. The USP of this branding strategy is our ability to juggle contradictions that strike at the heart of our democracy and culture. Never mind the fact that Indians have a long and rich tradition of successfully embracing modernity in their own unique ways; the attempt now is to roll the clock back some, and then some more. Our government is keen to demonstrate that India is a country of both mouse-charmers and cow-worshippers; that like the United States, we can lead the world on innovation and like Russia, strike down swiftly on dissent. All this, without allowing the contradictions take away from the swagger of an emerging global superpower.

For all of this to work, individuals have to embody these qualities. It is slowly becoming apparent that the sagacious political Indian can unabashedly pull off a primitive interior within a plural exterior. With just eighteen months of priming, we have indeed come a long way.

Is being shocked at Paris 13/11 and not having heard of Beirut 12/11, okay?

In a hyper-connected world that we live in now, terror attacks draw feverish responses. It is now par for the course that these incidents are used as fodder for advancing one’s political arguments. So the immediate aftermath of the coordinated terror attacks on Paris same a little of everything: expressions of shock, horror and sadness; pointing to the religious identity of the terrorists to buttress their point; a call upon western nations to declare war on terror; and also, a robust challenge to this wide outpouring of grief, asking why this incident should matter more than the incidents in Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo.

The last of these is an interesting recent development, at least in my experience, and there have been many variants of this argument that apply to diverse scenarios – ranging from natural disasters to law and order. Yet, a terror attack is a bit of a unique case. Many have commented extensively on how this is yet another instance of how only #WhiteLivesMatter. Western powers too reacted swiftly – France has already started retaliatory strikes on ISIS. By far though, the most interesting chatter was about about how deaths in the rest of the world matter less; that the world doesn’t mourn when these lesser humans die; that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have a ‘safe’ button for every attack in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.

My take – you notice and react to a terror attack in Paris, rather than Beirut or Baghdad, just because of the perceived improbability of the incident. This is the most ‘duh’ explanation, but I suspect it is probably the one closest to the truth. An illusion of safety is broken when you hear of an attack and deaths in a supposedly well-policed place with advanced security measures in place – that drives the shock factor. The instinct driving this response is basically this: “shit, I thought I would be safer walking the streets in Paris, than I would be in Baghdad“. The same holds for Abuja, Nairobi or Delhi. Usually this is just perception and by no means, based on data – but that is the way it is. That is what leads to the shock. In these responses, empathy for victims – howsoever genuine – is strictly secondary. So really, you react to a terror attack, based on your priors of how likely an incident is for a given city/country. To repeat, I am talking perceptions here – and not data-driven reality.

This needs to be seen separate from a state response. What the NATO does in response to this incident, as opposed to similar incidents elsewhere is an entirely different question, and a debate I am deliberately staying off in this post.

The aam aadmi response to a terror attack that doesn’t affect him is exactly as Naseeruddin Shah’s character in ‘A Wednesday’ explained: he thanks his stars he wasn’t hit, and moves on, forgetting all about it, until the next attack. Truth be told, I firmly believe that the fact that I have not been caught in a terrorist attack in Delhi is down to me being just lucky, given the levels of security we have on the ground in crowded markets, hospitals and malls. Some day, my luck will run out, and I should not be surprised.

So – is being shocked at Paris 13/11 and not having heard of Beirut 12/11, okay? I hesitate, but I think the answer to this question is ‘Yes’. And Mark Zuckerberg is being a rational salesman.

Avoiding perversions of evidence-informed decision-making

How to avoid “We saw the evidence and made a decision…and that decision was: since the evidence didn’t confirm our priors, to try to downplay the evidence”

This is a joint post with Heather


Before we dig into that statement (based-on-a-true-story-involving-people-like-us), we start with a simpler, obvious one: many people are involved in evaluations. We use the word ‘involved’ rather broadly. Our central focus for this post is people who may block the honest presentation of evaluation results.

In any given evaluation, there are several groups of organizations and people with stake in an evaluation of a program or policy. Most obviously, there are researchers and implementers. There are also participants. And, for much of the global development ecosystem, there are funders of the program, who may be separate from the funders of the evaluation. Both of these may work through sub-contractors and consultants, bringing yet others on board.

Our contention is that not all of these actors are currently, explicitly acknowledged in the current transparency movement in social science evaluation, with implications for the later acceptance and use of the results. the current focus is often on a contract between researchers and evidence consumers as a sign that, in Ben Olken’s terms, researchers are not nefarious and power (statistically speaking)-hungry (2015). To achieve its objectives, the transparency movement requires more than committing to a core set of analyses ex ante (through pre-analysis or commitment to analysis plans) and study registration.

To make sure that research is conducted openly at all phases, transparency must include engaging all stakeholders — perhaps particularly those that can block the honest sharing of results. This is in line with, for example, EGAP’s third research principle on rights to review and publish results. We return to some ideas of how to encourage this at the end of the blog.

Now, back to the opening statement, a subversion of the goal of evidence-informed decision-making. There are many interesting ways that stakeholders may try to dodge an honest sharing of results once they know what the results are. One is to claim that the public — whether in office or general public — will not be able to make sense of the results, so anything confusing, or, really, unexpected, needs to be pruned from the public report. Instead, all the not-as-hoped results can be relegated to internal rather than public, learning.

Decision-makers may indeed need brief synopses (written or otherwise) rather than being presented with a long report. Different combinations and permutations of the evidence may be presented to different stakeholders using different modes of communication, in line with what is salient to them.

However, this is not a suitable excuse to fail make the full set of findings public. Moreover, an assessment of what stakeholders can/not interpret that fails to account for how they say they want to receive evidence misses a key point of participation and partnership. It might reveal our (mis-)estimation of the policymaker’s intelligence and the complex policy challenges decision-makers encounter as part of their daily work.

We’ve talked elsewhere about committing to a decision process informed by evidence. in this post, we are after something even more simple: for key stakeholders to commit ex ante to making the results of a commissioned study public, irrespective of their respective priors regarding the intervention being studied. Of course, the piece of research should be deemed as technically sound. Assuming that it is, the goal is to encourage the honest sharing of results regardless of the direction of the results.

In theory, everyone party to a good ex ante evaluation (and ex post, though there may be slightly less stakeholder engagement; or the degree of engagement could vary depending on the emerging results from the study) is aware that the results for the effect of an intervention on an outcome of interest can be as hoped, opposite, null, or otherwise mixed and confusing. In practice, everyone has a prior, which may involve not just an educated hypothesis but an emotional commitment to a particular outcome.­

So what can help reduce the impulse and potential to cover-up unexpected results?

1. Better explanation of research processes and norms.In some cases, key actors within commissioning agencies may be initially enthusiastic about the idea of evaluation without fully understanding what it — and a measurement and results focus more generally — really entails. Here, one often makes the mistake of focusing on agency-capacity, rather than the capacity of individuals within these agencies. By capacity, we refer not only to technical know-how of evaluation methods but also familiarity with research processes and norms. Disparity in capacity can lead to serious contradictions within the same agency on the way research findings are treatedToo often, though, efforts at “capacity-building” and other modes of education for individuals within agencies about evaluation focus on evaluation designs and analysis. This comes at the expense of explaining the research process, the variety of possible evaluation outcomes, and norms around transparent reporting of results.

Patrick Dunleavy recently outlined the process of storyboarding research from the get-go to improve working in teams and helping to visualize the end-product. Such a process may be useful for a broader array of stakeholders than the research team, so that the whole process (the whole magic of “analysis and writing up”) can be made transparent. This represents a potentially softer, friendlier and more feasible version than drafting the entire report in advance, as Humphreys et al. attempted in their paper on fishing. It also may allow more of the process to be visible, rather than just the final reporting structure.

2. Invest time in bringing all stakeholders to understand and agree with the research objectives and processesSeveral research studies (especially evaluations) have a committee of advisers to steer the process. These are critical stakeholders in addition to those that commission and carry out the research. Ideally, all of those involved — including this committee of advisers — would reach a common understanding of the research objectives and methods to be followed. This would also include identifying policy messages from the study and engagement strategiesHowever, common ground is sometimes elusive, as these wider groups do not arrive early on at a fruitful working arrangement or basic understanding of the research process. Setting clearly understood objectives and a shared understanding of research processes may be time consuming but is invaluable when seen in the context of decision-making and transparency over research findings that may not match everyone’s priors.

3. Formal commitment to results reporting across stakeholdersRight now commitment to analyses and results reporting exist between researchers and the public or, really, other researchers. But researchers are not the only ones determining the content of results reporting — and thus reporting requires additional sets of (public? formal? registered?) commitments. These could, like pre-analysis plans or commitment-to-analysis plans, take the form of committing to a core set of analyses and reporting on these results. It may also take the form of MOUs that are less technical than ex ante analysis plans but still represent a commitment to reporting a certain set of results regardless of the direction of those resultsIn any case, the goal is to move the commitment from being between researchers (and perhaps mostly intelligible to researchers) to also involving study commissioners, other stakeholders with the power to block the publication of findings, and the public (such as the public paying the taxes to fund the program).

4. Early engagement with decision-makers.If decision-makers are a primary audience for the evaluation and if communicating to decision-makers is seen as a barrier to a complete, nuanced presentation of evaluation findings, then engaging with decision-makers early on may help. We recognize the time constraints of decision-makers and the importance of clarity in messaging. But the clarity of presentation and the complicatedness of the results need not be zero-sum.

One way to reduce this tension and to better communicate complex or complicated findings to decision-makers is to engage them in the evaluation from the very beginning, so that the potential for nuanced findings can be gradually introduced. If faced with a passive policy audience at the end of an evaluation, whose only role has been to turn up to listen to research findings in a workshop, the space for taking in complexity, nuance, and caveats in messaging will be limited. But assuming that evaluations findings need to assert only non-complex finding and straightforward recommendation is hugely problematic since we are talking about evaluations in social systems. As such, getting early buy-in and opening channels to gradually introduce results are important.

With these steps in place, chances are better that our based-on-a-true-story colleagues could have avoided the scenario that we referred to at the beginning of this post. An early commitment to the research processes and an agreement on the way forward would have helped prime key stakeholders to the possibility that research findings might be a mixed bag — which necessitates a nuanced dissemination strategy but not the burying of unfavorable results.

Implementing reforms in public systems

From a really interesting paper from the Accountability Initiative team – Yamini Aiyar, Ambrish Dongre and Vincy Davis “Education reforms, bureaucracy and the puzzles of implementation A case study from Bihar”

…we demonstrate the degree to which this self-identification as “passive agents” and “post officers” has shaped officials’ understanding of schools, the learning deficit and their own role in education administration. As “passive agents,” administrators interpret the learning challenge entirely through the prism of the administrative machine in which they are powerless cogs. In this world, behavior shifts only when “rules” and “orders,” closely monitored by superiors, demand change…

…In this hierarchical, order-driven culture, frontline agents understand “performance” entirely on the basis of responsiveness to orders and calls for compliance. Thus, even when reforms are introduced, the frontline rarely seeks to understand and internalize the logic for shifts in behavior – in this case, an explicit focus on classroom-practices and changes in pedagogy

Reforms initiated with public systems often overlook last mile implementation, and end up with an over-reliance on tighter controls, which are usually input-based, instead of focusing on outputs and outcomes. Some have even suggested fixing cameras in government offices, for instance. As this case study from Bihar shows, such reforms are usually demotivating, and only serve to perpetuate a post-office culture of governance.