India @ 70: time to stop being complacent about our democracy

For the seventieth time since independence, India celebrated its incredible democracy on 15th August 2016. There are several theories for why India is such an implausible democracy, and our ability to be an exception in a troubled neighbourhood evokes great nationalistic fervour. However, this celebration of our democracy sometimes distracts us from taking a hard look at the state of our democracy..

I want to contrast this with the focus on the economy. As this year coincided with 25 years of India’s liberalization project, there has been much written about how the economy needed to be unshackled from the tyranny of the licence raj, and about how much more remains to be done in our quest for economic growth. When the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation was in Parliament recently, reams were written about how it was a seminal piece of reform, and how this should herald a series of institutional reforms to unlock the economic potential of the country. This restlessness that one sees when it comes to the state of the economy isn’t quite visible when it comes to discussing the state of our democracy. In fact, it is fair to say that while we have strong lobbies pushing for economic reforms, we have become largely complacent about the state of our democracy. Recent actions by the government (across political parties) have exposed huge gaps that need to be addressed urgently.

Let me start with electoral reform. Two reports of the Law Commission—on Electoral Disqualifications (2014) and Electoral Reforms (2015)—lie largely ignored by political parties across the country. The latter report, especially, made strong recommendations for curbing the flow of black money into electoral financing, as well as taking action against the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ used as electoral propaganda. It is indeed a little ironical, then, that the last significant move by the government in the area of election financing was the amendment brought to retrospectively alter the definition of what counts as a ‘foreign entity’—a move that benefits the top political parties in the country that had been in potential violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) until then. Meanwhile, official advertisements for “friendly” media has been a tremendous growth industry in recent times.

Another area of concern has been the state’s ham-handed response to dissent. From organisations such as Amnesty International to student bodies such as in JNU and private individuals airing their views on freedom of expression in India—they have been met by a state response that sought to not only crush dissent through hooliganism by affiliates and spurious legal action, but also saw fit to make light of such incidents at public forums.

The next area of concern I would like to highlight is our federal structure. While the GST was lauded by all economics commentators, the implications for federalism were left unclear. Finance minister Arun Jaitley’s insistence on ‘pooled sovereignty’ will not convince critics who see a systematic erosion of the power of state governments to govern according to their priorities. Centrally-sponsored schemes, which were openly criticized by Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat for their straitjacketed nature, have not seen any significant reform either. Instead, there has been plenty of rhetoric about ‘Team India’ and ‘cooperative federalism’. This leaves plenty to be desired even if you take into account the committees and task-forces run by NITI Aayog. And even the rhetoric does not seem to apply when it comes to non-BJP ruled states. Kashmir is a special case, but it blatantly exposes the limitations of a central government driven by nationalistic rhetoric and paternalistic benevolence.

A final area of concern is the neglect of the democratic decentralisation process. The reforms of the early 1990s now appear toothless; both urban and rural local governments are hamstrung by poor resources and poor leadership, and an institutional framework that has not been reformed to keep up with the mounting responsibilities entrusted to local bodies. Governments have also taken a series of steps that erode local-level democracy. For instance, states such as Rajasthan and Haryana have hurt local governance by introducing questionable eligibility criteria for contesting elections; Nitish Kumar’s Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 empowers the District Collector to impose fines on a village/town (presumably with no involvement of the panchayat); in Maharashtra (and elsewhere), the forest department has violated the rights of tribal communities to manage their forests.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it points to the rapidly worsening state of our democracy at all levels—right from the centre of power in Delhi, down to our villages. Seven decades after independence, the state of our democracy should concern us all, and erase any sense of complacency that might exist regarding how great a nation we are. But we need to be careful: the incredible democratic project that India represents will not be corrected by chauvinistic nationalism. It is as important to guard against those agitating against the current state of our democracy, and in favour of reversing the progress we have made. True reform requires a partnership between a liberal state and a constantly watchful civil society. Is the current government up to this task?

Women and power in post-conflict countries

From a WaPo column by Aili Mari Tripp:

Rwanda is the most-quoted example, but the phenomenon of women holding a significant proportion of official positions (in legislatures or in the bureaucracy) extends to several other African countries – notably those emerging from conflict.

Across Africa, countries emerging from major conflict were quicker to advance women’s rights and elect women to political office than countries that had remained less conflicted. What is more, post-conflict nations went further in changing their laws and constitutions, offering women more strong legal protections in the areas of land rights, family law, violence and political equality…

How does this happen?

…In Africa, for instance, women were among those most engaged in behind-the-scenes peacemaking, pressuring militia to lay down their arms, demonstrating for peaceful elections and negotiating the release of kidnapped civilians. Further, women gain credibility after these conflicts, since they have been political outsiders, uninvolved with leading the militias and paramilitaries and not responsible for the violence – making a vote for a woman seen as a break with the disastrously violent status quo.

The emergence of women to positions of power is a break away from the established norms. Tripp finds that a long spell of brutal conflict readies a society for radical changes.

And I was wondering about Somalia…

…women made more advances after major civil wars or wars of national liberation than after interstate or proxy wars, or after low-level conflict, local rebellions or coups d’état. For instance, consider the ongoing conflict in Somalia. There is not enough stability for leaders to worry about legislative reform – and so we should not expect much legal change with respect to women’s status during conflict.

Here is Tripp’s book – “Women and power in post-conflict Africa”

Can Modi distance himself from cows?

In India, Narendra Modi owns the strongest ‘dog whistle’ there is. His supporters know when he means something, when he doesn’t mean what he is saying, how he means it, and what the implication for them is. In recent speeches, if Modi has made it clear that he is very ‘gussa’ about cow vigilantes, he also made it amply clear that his anger was only limited to those cow vigilantes that attacked Dalits – a constituency crucial to his party’s prospects (and in some ways, his own reputation) in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. In response then, expect a brief respite from attacks, possibly conditional on a pardon from sympathetic state governments for the excesses already committed. They have already been ‘assured’ that the extent of a state government’s action would be to prepare a dossier.

Another view is that Modi is conscious that the negative publicity stemming from atrocities on Dalits affects the publicity he is (rightly) seeking for reforms such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and other initiatives aimed at establishing India as a favourable destination for investments. Add to that, Modi’s desire and efforts to build a favourable personal reputation, and you should have a Prime Minister who is deeply concerned that the ongoing lawlessness in the name of the cow.

I am of the belief that Modi’s concerns are firmly with the former, not the latter. He is too shrewd a politician to fall for the charms of the ‘west’. He knows his electorate is back home, and what is needed is a mix of favourable domestic economic conditions, and a host of emotive issues on which he can polarise the electorate. Do not be misled by his stage shows in New York or London – those are aimed at the domestic audience, who take western and NRI approval as a sign of success. The fact that NRIs work the social media platforms tirelessly and raise money for Modi (as well as for Trump) is a bonus, but that’s clearly not the raison d’etre.

As a vehicle to go beyond domestic economic issues, cow vigilantism has usually worked – and Modi himself has used his dog whistle to great effect not just as when he was a Chief Minister, but even after he was sworn in Prime Minister of this country. So has a well-measured policy on Muslims – alternately ignoring them (under the garb of ‘India first’, ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’, etc) and demonising them (for terrorism, population growth, etc). In fact, this tactic worked so well in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that Modi and his party returned an absolute majority for the first time in three decades.

It is probably safe to conclude then that Modi cannot distance himself from cows. Having grown up as a swayamsewak himself, his very instincts are to use divisive topics such as ‘cow slaughter’ to stoke communal tensions. This isn’t about ‘opportunism’; this is about the core nature of the RSS and its followers. Distancing himself from ‘cows’ would thus mean distancing himself from the RSS, and that is a risk even Narendra Modi would not take.

Can logframes be improved for adaptive management?

Posting in full, a comment I posted on a thoughtful blog by Pete, reflecting on what he calls

a nagging feeling that the way development organisations continue to use the log-frame to manage project performance is holding us back from really thinking differently and politically about development

My response:

Thanks for blogging about this, Pete. I agree wholeheartedly: it’s definitely time to overhaul how programmes are reviewed.

Revamping the logframe is one step. A possible option: In a standard logframe, each output has multiple indicators that get scored on the basis of whether the targets have been achieved or not, and the output then gets scored on the basis of the number of indicators that are met. How about, if we change the way this works and have indicators represent multiple pathways towards achieving an output? This would one, establish from the very beginning that not all of these pathways would work. This would also prompt programmes to reflect on the Theory of Change (and underlying assumptions) and integrate them with the logframe. If we did this, targets/milestones for some of the indicators would be met, while some others would not. But that would be written into the design of the programme assessment framework. Outputs would be scored on the basis of overall progress, and not tied to individual scores against each indicator.

The other step we need to take is to revamp how logframes are used for assessment: Scoring (as discussed above) is one aspect. The other aspect is capacity of those doing the scoring. Obviously, rigid and linear scoring is easier to undertake, as well as easier to defend using a rule-book. But if being ‘flexible and adaptive’ is a genuine priority, reviewers will need to stick their necks out to make judgments that go beyond just numbers. This should not only be “allowed”, but should be considered “essential”. A system of peer-reviews could be used to negate biases (in either direction).


Holding the state to account

In a democracy, a critical element in the engagement between citizens and state is “accountability”. There are several definitions—one among them from the World Bank reads: “Accountability exists when there is a relationship where an individual or body, and the performance of tasks or functions by that individual or body, are subject to another’s oversight, direction or request that they provide information or justification for their actions”.

Citizens and civil society organizations seek accountability from the state. Where this builds on broad-based civil society engagement, we hear of “social accountability” whose advocates believe that a regular cycle of elections alone are not enough to hold the state to account. For instance, a decline in the quality of public services or cases of denial of (social) justice call for mobilization outside of the electoral cycle. But how does the state respond?

When the state is under sustained pressure to reform, it could take one of these positions: (1) respond to civil society using physical force and/or its legal prowess; (2) stoically “do nothing”; (3) formulate a response that emphasizes form over function; and (4) undertake genuine reform. These options represent a sliding scale of state response, and on any given issue, the state might change its position over time, depending on how the context evolves.

The reality is that more often than not, status quo rules: the space for citizens seeking accountability relies primarily on the willingness of the state. It is not in the nature of states to do this of their own volition, and often, a sustained campaign by a strong coalition of interests is required to influence them.

Further, we are living in an age of rising intolerance of the state towards civil society. While wider penetration of technology has opened up new avenues for broader political participation, the holders of state power have effectively struck back. In democracies like India, this tussle often looks entirely lopsided, as the state machinery has untrammelled resources—legal and financial—at its disposal. Turkey has seen a systematic purge in recent years, and the recent failed coup has strengthened the state’s hand in crushing all opposition.

Given this, how does one move beyond a “do nothing” response? The research programme, Making All Voices Count, talks of “concertation” moments, which occur when “reform-minded officials and politicians” within the state and civil society come together to deliberate on issues and initiate reforms in response. Reform, especially on political issues such as electoral reform, anti-corruption, or reforms to the justice system, requires these coalitions. However, even when “concertation” moments are arrived at, outcomes are not guaranteed.

This is because sometimes, “concertation” moments look like deal-making, where both sides agree on the goal and recognize the urgency of action, but not necessarily on either the process of arriving at the reform, or the broader implications for state-citizen relationship in governance. For instance, with both the Jan Lokpal movement and the demand for reforms to anti-rape laws, the state-civil society engagement appeared to reach an inflexion point which led to legislative action. However, the intended longer-term outcomes have not been realized, suggesting that the state was able to get away with action that emphasised “form” over “function”.

Even so, building reform coalitions remain our best bet. But first, it is important to recognize that a strategy of constant confrontation is unlikely to be fruitful. Confrontation may pay off as a short-term strategy, but is unlikely to yield gains that can be sustained. Secondly, coalitions need to be a combination of key individuals and institutions. For instance, the role of both mainstream and social media—as well as engaging the judiciary—has in recent years become critical to civil society activism.

In India for instance, the state’s inertia has been time and again challenged by directives from the judiciary when civil society pressure proves to be insufficient.

Also, reform coalitions are often dependent on a few influential individuals. Individuals within the state are critical to promoting horizontal accountability systems between different arms of the state, as well as campaigning for effective vertical accountability along the chain of command within arms of the state. Individuals are also crucial in establishing bargaining positions on behalf of civil society.

Every society offers a unique context in which strategies must be designed for citizens to hold the state to account. But social accountability is not just about positioning citizens against their state. In a democracy, it has to be about establishing mutually respected norms and mutually agreed mechanisms of engagement, striking a balance between the primacy of the state in ushering reform, and the legitimate role of civil society in safeguarding the interests of citizens.


This is my latest livemint column

What does Raghuram Rajan’s exit tell us about the Modi sarkar?

In the last couple of months, we have witnessed the spectacle of the intellectual hero that is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rajya Sabha MP, Subramanian Swamy, take on and vanquish the intellectual Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India. While this will go down as yet another feather in Swamy’s giant-killing cap, for Rajan, this should be an occasion to reflect on the vagaries of public policymaking in India.

If you stop taking sides, you would easily see that what Swamy pulled off is quite spectacular. He took on the head of an aspiring economy’s central bank, a man with impeccable academic credentials and a stellar record in the economics profession (having got more predictions right than wrong). Also, critically, Rajan enjoyed that all-important factor in the fate of economies these days—positive perception among the pundits. Add to that the man’s charm which prompted the coinage of terms such as ‘dosanomics’ by an adoring media.

Put together, Rajan was intellectually sharp, charming and outspoken. As Shashi Tharoor learnt earlier, that is a fatal combination in India, especially in electoral politics. This episode tells us that whether in electoral politics, or outside it, you cannot pull off wearing a personality that makes you stand out in a crowd.

A mere mortal may have been deterred by all of this—but not Swamy. His attacks were sharp, measured and went largely unchallenged except for a perfunctory word here and there from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Jaitley (not dissimilar to those that have been uttered before in response to, say, attacks on minorities). Swamy’s Twitter-fandom cheered him on, and in the end, when victory was his, he issued pithy statements that fully reflected the enormity of his success. The Art of War could not have scripted this battle better. The outcome suits the worthies in the Modi Sarkar as well, and it tells us that with the right tools, you can get your work done without sullying your own hands.

Also read: India will miss Raghuram Rajan as teacher more than as banker

So, where does this leave our economy now? There are real fears that with a job as unfinished as it is with our economy—for instance, the push towards cleaning up the balance sheets of public sector banks—this development could see the economy slide. It is important to remember that almost every international analyst who has stoked the story of ‘India being a bright spot in the global gloom’ has also pointed out the dangers of the spiralling non-performing assets.

As evident from Rajan’s quest to clean up our banking system, this is not only a technical challenge, but also deeply political one. One can only hope that the next RBI governor will be equal to the task, but Rajan’s fate ensures that his successor would tread extremely cautiously on this matter. This outcome suits all the status quo-ists—among them, several key players in the Indian economy, including the Modi Sarkar.

Also read: The lessons from the Raghuram Rajan affair

Finally, op-eds from those sympathetic to the government and Swamy’s efforts have been quick to seize on Rajan’s outspokenness as the cause for this exit. In their view, the RBI governor and other such key positions must be an ally to the government, and stay within their brief. At best, this would give us Arvind Subramanian (chief economic aadvisor), and at worst, Pahlaj Nihlani (Central Board of Film Certification chairman). Rajan on the other hand, is being accused of not being part of the euphoria over the now-once-again-shining India, and instead, making cautionary statements such as “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”—or for expressing his views on political corruption and ‘intolerance’. When civil society and individual artists can be vilified the way they often are, what hope did the RBI governor–whose salary is paid by the government of India–have?

Also read: Swamy hails Raghuram Rajan’s exit as liberation for India economy

India is a country ravaged by a never-ending stream of institutional failures. Our Parliament does not function, law and order operates according to political whims, the top judiciary seems to veer out of control, and so on. The list is depressingly long and endemic to our daily lives. So, we take our heroes where we can find them. The Election Commission remains a redeeming feature of our democracy, although political parties seem to have figured out how to stay within the letter of the law while violating its spirit with impunity. The Reserve Bank of India, largely due to its independent-thinking governor, has been another shining light–but one that the government now has seen fit to dim.

To come back to my original question: after everything that has passed in the last two years, what does Raghuram Rajan’s exit tell us about the Modi Sarkar? Nothing new at all!

Reading ICAI’s review of DFID WASH results

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), UK’s aid watch dog, today, released its review of DFID’s programming and results in water sanitation and hygiene (WASH). – In this impact review, they take a close look at the results DFID reported in its 2015 Annual Report; results that cost £ 713 million between 2010 – 2014.

Do read the full report here.

Some thoughts on the areas of concern in the report:

  • The focus on ‘leaving no one behind’ is spot on. It is easy to stack up impressive WASH numbers if one ignores the poorest and the most vulnerable in communities. Safe sanitation and hygiene need to be universal for health benefits to accrue to communities. Within WASH, sanitation is specifically complex, sometimes also called a ‘wicked problem’ – a challenge foremost, of inducing lasting behaviour change. The very nature of careful social engineering required to bring about this behaviour change seems to run contrary to some of the factors that make an intervention scalable – an ability to standardise inputs and break programme components down to easily replicable bits.
  • Within the broad basket of ‘service delivery’ interventions, WASH is one of the trickier sectors when it comes to measuring sustained impact, especially at scale. Naturally then, ICAI find that while DFID’s claims of having reached 62.9 million people are broadly correct, it is very hard to establish if the benefits are sustained. Therefore, the results reported remain at the ‘output’ level and that is what ICAI ends up assessing, even though what they set out to do is an ‘impact’ review. While the report speculates on sustaining benefits beyond the 2011-15 period, I wonder whether those that accessed the programme in 2011-12 continued to experience any benefits in 2015.
  • The link with government systems, in terms of implementation, monitoring and sustenance remains unclear: another typical WASH issue. Barring say, India, (and this is true especially in sub-Saharan countries, government WASH budgets are highly inadequate. A lot of the work that happens is funded by donors and this implies that monitoring and maintenance happens outside the official system. Achieving local ownership in such a context is a challenge.
  • ICAI finds it difficult to assess value for money (VfM) in DFID’s WASH programmes. On one hand, it finds that there isn’t enough competitive procurement, but also there is a lack of established metrics and benchmarks to analyse VfM. Following DFID’s own 3Es framework, an Economy and Efficiency analysis should be possile across the portfolio, and as far as I can tell, is rapidly being developed in the sector, and within DFID. However, partly as a consequence of the lack of ‘outcome/impact’ data, cost-effectiveness studies are likely to remain a challenge. This work by an OPM-led consortium should be particularly relevant in improving VfM analysis across the sector

How could this review have been better?

  • We could do with a better feel for DFID’s global portfolio – what the variationa in context-specific experiences, challenges and results are. But probably fair to concede that these boundaries to scope must have been considered when the methodology was being finalised.
  • Use administrative data: The review states that several DFID programmes contributed towards larger national programmes, or attempted to strengthen national/local data management systems. It would be great to hear more about experiences from different countries – with varying state capacities – on the extent to which it was feasible to use administrative data as an effective monitoring tool.
  • While in absolute terms, 62.9 million is an impressive figure, we are looking at it against the backdrop of a staggering 2.4 billion who lack access to reliable WASH services. In the countries where DFID made significant investments, was there significant progress made towards reaching the MDG targets? Yes, the MDGs were output-based too, but it would be great to get a sense of the scale of impact achieved at the national-level.
  • Finally, on learning, the report is critical of DFID, saying that not enough is being done to share lessons across programmes, or from related sectors such as health and education. But surely, there are lessons programmes have learnt over the five years (2010-15)? Further, in the absence of good impact data, was there at least good quality process data? Have we learnt how to implement a WASH programme better?

As I have written previously, ICAI reports are a great addition to the sector, both in terms their scrutiny function of one of the biggest donors in play, as well as because of the questions they ask. So do keep an eye on this space.